It’s not the growing polar bear population that has residents of Norway’s remote Svalbard Islands on edge. It’s the jittery, gun-toting tourists.
“The odds of getting shot by a tourist are now greater than of getting attacked by a polar bear,” said Ian Gjertz, a biologist at the Norwegian Polar Institute.
Since Norway banned hunting of polar bears in 1973, the islands’ bear population has doubled to about 2,000. Tourism has grown even faster.
Though polar bears have killed two people in as many years, experts say tourists pose an even greater danger. They trek across bewildering glaciers often without any training for the high-powered rifles they rent for about 60 kroner - $9 - a day at shops like Svalbard Safari.
“We show them how the weapon works. But it’s really up to them to make sure they can use it,” store clerk Bjorn Fjustad said.
The islands’ roughly 3,000 Norwegian and Russian residents routinely carry guns in the wilderness, where seven bears were legally killed in self-defense last year.
But locals say the tourists bring their guns into town. The outsiders, they say, seem convinced that polar bears lurk everywhere: behind barstools, in cafes and even in bank vaults.
“We had a real problem with tourists walking into the bank with guns,” said Hans Lorentzen, who works at the bank in Longyearbyen.
“It is a little like the Wild West,” conceded Elisabeth Aarsaether of the Svalbard governor’s office. But she said there are few alternatives to arming tourists.
Just this month, a bear trapped local resident Thomas Olsen, 24, in a cabin for a day. Though Olsen felt obliged to shoot, he used a camera. He took a close-up picture of the bear glaring at him through a window.
“It was an optimal experience,” he said.