Polar bear's reindeer kill triggers debate over changing diet

OSLO • A polar bear chases a reindeer into the water, drags it ashore and devours it, in a striking scene caught on film for the first time.

With sea ice melting, the king of the Arctic may be changing its diet.

The dramatic spectacle played out in Norway's Svalbard archipelago on Aug 21 last year - in summer, the sea ice retreats and takes with it the seals that make up the polar bear's main source of food.

A research team from a nearby Polish scientific station watched it happen and caught for the first time on camera a polar bear hunting a reindeer. The video shows a young female chasing a male reindeer into the icy waters, catching and drowning it, then pulling it on shore and making a meal of it.

"The whole situation was so amazing that it was like watching a documentary," said University of Gdansk biologist Izabela Kulaszewicz. "You could almost hear the voice of a narrator in the background saying that you absolutely have to watch this event because we will most likely never see anything like it again."

The scene was so unusual that she co-wrote Polar Biology with two other researchers. In it, they argued the incident was one of a series of observations that suggest polar bears are increasingly preying on terrestrial animals to make up for their limited access to seals.

In Svalbard, just over 1,000km from the North Pole and where signposts warn of the danger of polar bears, some 300 sedentary bears live alongside around 20,000 reindeer.

But other experts cautioned against reading too much into the incident. "If polar bears were killing reindeer back in the 1950s and 1960s, it would have been very rare to have been seen, as there were few people, few bears and few reindeer" in Svalbard at the time, said University of Alberta professor Andrew Derocher.

The new diet may not make a difference in bolstering the animal's population size.

"There's not enough ice to sustain a polar bear population," Dr Derocher said.

"I suspect that given the trend, the Barents Sea polar bear population - which includes Svalbard - is one that will disappear this century."


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 29, 2021, with the headline Polar bear's reindeer kill triggers debate over changing diet. Subscribe