View polar bears in Canada
A polar bear and her two cubs sit in Wapusk National Park on the shore of Hudson Bay near Churchill, Manitoba, Canada. Picture: AP Photo/ The Canadian Press, Jonathan Hayward

Churchill is called the polar bear capital of the world - but visitors to the Canadian town should ensure they have an armed escort when observing these beautiful but dangerous creatures.

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"That's enough now, mummy bear," tour guide Terry Elliot calls out to a polar bear standing just 30 metres away from a group of 30 slightly nervous tourists.

The bear stops in its tracks but the danger is not over as her cub continues to approach the group. "It's a sign of stress, she is worried about her cub," Elliot explains when the adult bear appears to yawn. "Everyone stay close together."

Before going out to view the bears, everyone on the tour was told that remaining together was the best protection against attack.

"Polar bears are faster than race horses," says Elliot, who carries a couple of large rocks in his pockets to scare away any bears that come too close. However, the young cub turns around of its own accord and returns to its mother, bringing relief all around.

The accommodation in a wooden hut in the middle of the lonely Manitoba tundra is the perfect place to observe polar bears. Two rivers flow into Hudson Bay which freezes due to the fresh water and allows polars a platform from which to hunt seals.

"The concentration of bears here is the highest in the world," says Elliot. Only King Karl's Land near Spitzbergen in Norway and the Russian Wrangel Islands can compete with Churchill but both are much more difficult to reach.

Hudson Bay is home to between 900 and 950 polar bears although a decade ago the number was closer to 1200. The onset of global warming means the bay is remaining ice-free for longer and longer each year, reducing the length of the bears' hunting season.

"Temperatures reached 37C on one day during the summer, making it the hottest place in Canada," says Elliot.

Churchill is home to 900 residents and would most probably be a ghost town if it was not for the presence of the polar bears to attract tourists. The military bases constructed during World War II were closed during the 1980s, leading many people to leave the town while it has grown impossible to earn a living from fur trapping.

While the bears are considered an attraction by many, they can also be a nuisance and a cause for concern. "Recently we had to shoot a 270kg bear," says ranger Bob Windsor, one of six natural resource officers stationed in Churchill.

"We tried to drive him away from the town in a pick-up truck but eventually he charged the vehicle, leaving a huge dent. I was afraid the out of control animal would come through the side window."

Bears are only shot as a last resort, assures the 49-year-old, who carries a 9mm pistol in his holster for protection. Normally, any bear found wandering the streets - which mostly happens at night - is tranquilised and locked up an a specially constructed prison that sometimes houses anything between 10 and 30 bears.

"They remain there for 30 days and are given no food, just water, before being flown out," explains Windsor.

The idea is that the imprisonment and lack of food will scare the bears away from returning to the town in the future but the plan has met with only limited success, meaning locals and bears continue to live cheek by jowl.

"We trust each other a lot," says Elliot. "We don't lock the doors to our houses or cars."

This has the advantage that there is always somewhere to flee to if confronted by a hungry bear.

The West Australian

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