Polar bears are at the centre of a growing Canadian tourist industry, with ecotourism ventures striving to give visitors the best possible wildlife experience by running trips to see the animals in their natural habitat. Vehicles approach the bears to view them and as is often the case, competition between vehicles to provide the best or most exclusive view may occur.
For the first time in Churchill, Manitoba, Earthwatch teams are seeking to quantify the effect of these approaches on the behaviour and behavioural response of the bears. Earthwatch researchers have found that, during observations to date, the average number of tourist vehicles within 100m of a bear was 2.4, and in only 14% of observations were no vehicles at all within 100m of the bears. This suggests that bears in the tourist area are rarely without a vehicle nearby.
Bear response was also interesting. Bears reacted to approaching vehicles in 40% of approaches. The average distance at which bears reacted was 38m. Bears were also much more likely to react to the first vehicle approach than subsequent approaches, implying that habituation occurs within a single day in the tourist area. Reaction to a vehicle is often preceded by raising the head multiple times during an approach. Behavioural cues like this may be used by tour operators to predict and avoid more ‘energy-costly' reactions by bears to human activity.
The results from this study so far have been presented to Conservation Manitoba officials as they consider guidelines for the tourism industry in Churchill. The results will provide a sound scientific basis to help determine a balance between wildlife viewing and educational opportunities for tourists, with practices that promote polar bear conservation. The project is also actively engaging school and university students teaching live from the field via satellite.
In the longer term, there is another potentially more catastrophic threat to the bears' survival. Increasing evidence that global warming is influencing Arctic regions may mean that as Artic sea ice thins, the period bears spend on land will lengthen. It will become even more important to understand the behaviour of these animals during this part of their life cycle.
Drs. Waterman and Roth will continue their investigation into the lives of Churchill bears yielding both an understanding of behaviour as well as providing practical advice and guidelines to promote minimal disturbance to the bears.
Find out more or join a team in the field
Photo credits: © Jane Waterman