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‘It looked me in the eyes and I accepted this is how I die’: polar bears forced closer to humans as food supplies dwindle

There’s nothing quite like being circled by a hungry, one-tonne polar bear.

That’s precisely what Denham Hitchcock and the Sunday Night crew faced on their latest story – confronted by this unexpected visitor while they were trapped inside a regular car.

In the far reaches of northern Canada, it’s bitterly cold – around -30 degrees. It’s also incredibly remote, the limit of human endurance – but for polar bears it’s a playground.

On the edge of the Arctic you’ll find the tiny frontier town of Churchill – population just 700. It’s a place where polar bears and humans coexist like nowhere else – sometimes with terrifying consequences.

Conservation Officer Brett Wlock is Churchill’s protector-in-chief. While the numbers of polar bears are decreasing with the sea ice melting earlier than ever before, there’s more of them on land – which means more of them in Churchill.

Brett’s team is on call 24/7, mostly using the car horn and blasts from a shotgun to scare them off. Yet with so many polar bears, attacks are inevitable.

Erin Greene is one of the few to survive.

She recalls the terrifying experience, which took place on Halloween. “There’s usually a party at the local bar and everybody gets really excited for it, and everybody gets dressed up. At a certain point, [I] decided that I should go home. This was about 5am.”

“My friend Nicki happened to look over her shoulder and said, ‘Oh my god guys, there’s a bear!’ And then the bear was coming off the main street and running down the street towards us. We were maybe three houses down, and it was just powering towards us.”

“It looked me in the eyes, and then passed both of my friends and came around and then grabbed onto the back of my head with its jaw. I just kind of accepted this is how I die. Then I heard a voice.”

It was the voice of a stranger – a retired engineer living nearby who woke to the noise, and attacked the bear with a shovel.

His actions saved her life. Erin suffered deep lacerations to her scalp, stomach and legs. In a critical condition, she was flown to the city of Winnipeg.

It’s for this reason that bear traps are so important. The polar bears that are caught are taken to a holding facility – a kind of bear jail – before being relocated far away from humans by helicopter.

At this time of year, it only takes a short drive to see the polar bears out at play – a magnificent sight, but one which is becoming more and more rare.

Polar bear numbers are dwindling because climate change is melting the sea ice where they hunt for seals. Starving bears are travelling closer to Churchill looking for food.

Scientists like Steve Amstrup are trying to reduce the number of attacks on humans. His group, Polar Bears International, is trialling a new radar, that will spot a bear approaching and raise the alarm.

Still, he’s worried in the near future, it may not be needed.

“Polar bears everywhere are in trouble,” Dr Amstrup explains. “The challenge for polar bears is loss of sea ice habitat, and a lot of people don’t really understand what that means. Polar bears catch basically two species of seal – ring seals and bearded seals – and they can only catch them from the surface of the sea ice, so when the ice melts, the polar bears can’t catch their food.”

“If we continue on our current greenhouse gas emissions path, we could lose two-thirds of the world’s polar bears by the middle of this century, and we could lose them all by the end of the century.”

“It’s my hope that by deploying systems like the radar that we have a long-term future for polar bears and people in this area, but a safe future for both of them.”

Reporter: Denham Hitchcock
Producer: Paul Waterhouse