Polar bear attacks are incredibly rare. Saying that, we shouldn’t be surprised when a disappearing natural habitat and the ongoing, accelerating proliferation of our species means that we occasionally cross paths. When we do, there is a small chance that something could go horribly wrong.
As reported by several outlets, including BBC News, Aaron Gibbons, 31, was in Canada’s frigid Nunavut territory on July 3. While he was on Sentry Island, a popular fishing and hunting locale, he encountered a polar bear.
Gibbons, although equipped with a rifle, was unarmed when the encounter took place. At the time, he was with his daughters, whom he instructed to run as he stood between them and the bear.
As the bear started stalking or charging toward them, Gibbons made sure his daughters escaped before it attacked. Sadly, he died. Another person later shot and killed the bear, seemingly after his school-aged daughters requested help using the radio on a boat.
Reports note that locals living near the island are entirely used to the fact that polar bears pass through the region as they migrate northwards. Deaths, however, are extremely uncommon, with the last in Nunavut occurring 18 years prior.
It’s thought that as climate change worsens, polar bears are more likely to either spend more time on land, or become more gregarious and venture near humans or human settlements in order to find food. By default, this makes them more likely to come into conflict with humans.
Although this latest incident can’t be extrapolated into a trend, it’s a concerning sign on a future that may come to pass. Those living in the area where the tragic incident occurred have said that polar bears have been appearing more frequently in recent years, and they seem increasingly less afraid of humans.
The non-profit conservation group, Polar Bears International, however, points out that there’s a lot we’ve still to learn about why polar bears may attack humans. A recent study found that between 1870 and 2014 there have been just 73 documented wild polar bear attacks, with 20 fatalities as a consequence. This is certainly a small number, but it's nevertheless taken from a small, insubstantial data set.
There’s certainly a heightened risk with “nutritionally stressed” adult male polar bears, and female adult polar bears only seem to attack in defense of cubs. However, we need more data before we can say whether or not there is a correlation between sea ice loss and human-polar bear encounters.
In any case, any death as a result of an encounter is clearly a grim moment for both polar bears and ourselves. Gibbons was a member of the local, 2,500-strong community in Arviat, and several have told CBC News that his death is a shocking, sad loss.