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Threatened Polar Bears Find Sanctuary in Alaskan Village

Photographer: Jim Lo Scalzo

 

As climate change shrinks their natural habitat, polar bears are turning the Alaskan village of Kaktovik into their very own sanctuary city.

 

The rise in global temperatures is having a very real, and very devastating, the effect on Arctic ice formation, diminishing its scope and delaying its seasonal buildup. NASA reported that in 2017 there was a 'record low wintertime maximum extent' of ice. That scarcity means Alaskan polar bears can’t reach their traditional hunting grounds until later in fall.

 

Land-bound and hungry, as many as 60 of these predators have learned to gather in late summer in the Inupiat community of Kaktovik (population 262). That’s when the town begins its annual subsistence harvest—permitted by the International Whaling Commission—for three bowhead whales. The hunt is deemed vital for the community, providing thousands of pounds of food as well as a direct link to the Inupiat’s cultural identity. After residents carve and distribute the meat and blubber, a front loader carries what remains of the carcass to a bone pile at the far end of town. There, the bears converge, scavenging for whale meat and much-needed calories.

 

And with the bears come, camera-toting tourists, floating on small guide boats a few hundred feet offshore. More than 1,500 visitors came to view the polar bears here last year, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and a half dozen locally owned tour guide businesses have sprouted up to meet the demand. Tour boat captains go through great pains not to disturb the bears, gliding upon them quietly and maintaining a safe distance. On these tours, it's not uncommon to see 10 or more bears at once, slumbering, feasting, or playing in the water.

 

The tragic forces that have driven polar bears to Kaktovik have raised their romantic appeal. Polar bears are the poster animal of climate change, and this hardscrabble community on the edge of a continent may be the last best place to see them.