Nunavut community marks one year without killing polar bears thanks to Coke-funded program

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew
A new genomic study estimates polar bears split from other bears as much as five million years ago.

A small Canadian Arctic community is celebrating an unusual anniversary: One whole year without having to kill a polar bear.

Arviat, a hamlet of about 2,300 on the western shore of Hudson Bay, has seen an increasing number of polar bears around the community in recent years and they've been seen stalking children and threatening sled dogs. Residents shot eight bears in 2010 and three in 2011, the National Post reported.

But a program set up by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and partly funded by Coca-Cola Canada has resulted in no bears being killed in 2012 while protecting Arviat residents from the fearsome Arctic predator.

The three-year Human-Polar Bear Conflict Reduction Project involves supplying residents with sealed steel containers to store their supplies of wild meat and dog food, and electric fences to protect the hamlet's sled-dog compounds, the Post noted.

[ Related: Environmentalists, big business can work together, says WWF's Martin von Mirbach ]

But the principal line of defence is local hunter Leo Ikakhik, hired as a kind of polar bear bouncer. Ikakhik stands guard over the community between midnight and 8 a.m. in the peak bear season from October to through December. If a bear encroaches, Ikakhik uses spotlights, explosive "bear bangers" and, if those don't work, rubber bullets to discourage them, the Post said.

Coca-Cola, which uses smiling, Coke-swilling polar bears in its marketing, has been working with the WWF on polar bear conservation for some time. It's in the second year of a five-year, $2-million effort called Arctic Home that is developing programs to preserve the bears and other ice-dependant species from the effects of climate change and shrinking sea ice.

While the polar bears look cute and cuddly in Coke ads, they are one of the world's most most dangerous predators and the only one that actively considers people as prey, the Post said.

Bears have been a familiar sight around Arctic communities such as Arviat, lured by the prospect of food scavenged at town dumps. But numbers around Arviat have increased in recent years, with officials suggesting reduced sea ice has driven them closer to shore with the hamlet providing ready food source.

They've also become less wary of humans.

“A bear was near one of the windows of our house and some of them are looking into people’s homes," resident Peter Suvaksiuk told CBC News last October, according to the Post. "I don’t understand why they are so tame now."

[ Related: Nunavut community of Arviat plans to open to tourists ]

The Arviat project is meant to serve as a model for other Arctic communities. Mayor Bob Leonard said in a news release that while the project has another year to run, other steps need to be taken, including better ways of dealing with the garbage that lures the bears. The hamlet also hopes to continue using the bear monitor past the program's official expiry, he said.

The project does not necessarily save bears from being killed, just changes where and when, the Post said. In the past, bears shot near the community were added to residents' annual hunting quota.

"This is about reducing ... the number of people who are injured or killed by polar bears," said Pete Ewins of WWF Canada's Arctic Program.