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Learning to keep bears and people safe

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Some attendees at a recent international human-bear conflict workshop may have been wondering: “What is that girl  from the Netherlands doing here –  there are no brown-, black-, or polar bears or any other large predators to be found in that small, flat country?!”. That is correct, but WWF-Netherlands is involved in international projects focussing on a wide variety of species including large predators. In many instances  these programmes have to deal with human-wildlife conflicts which makes this a very important topic in our work.  Together with Geoff York from the WWF Global Arctic Programme I am working on a circumpolar strategy on how to deal with human-polar bear conflicts. We attended the human-bear conflict workshop to learn from practitioners  who have been working on human-bear (brown, black and polar) conflicts for years.

There were over 300 attendees from all over Canada and the US, and some from a bit further away; Japan, Finland, Slovakia and me from Holland. The main topics discussed during the workshops were on causes of human-bear conflicts, what can be done to prevent such incidents and how to communicate about bears and how to deal with them in a safe way. Additional information was given during demonstration sessions outside the workshop facility. There some ‘bear safe’ waste containers, bear traps, electric fences and other equipment were displayed. All these materials are being used to prevent conflicts between people and bears, and to enhance the coexistence between the two.

Human- bear conflicts are increasing in many areas as a result of increasing human populations and activity. In some areas the number of bears is increasing as well. Reduced bear habitat and increasing numbers of both people and bears increases the potential of contact between the two. Polar bears are forced to spend more time ashore in close proximity of people as a result of melting sea-ice, caused by climate change. Bears can pose a threat to people’s life, and damage property in search of food. In some areas where bears live in close proximity of people, management interventions are in place to prevent serious conflicts. Residents are informed about how to share their surroundings with bears in a safe way, such as by using ‘bear safe’ waste bins, carrying bear spray, and securing houses properly. In some cases bears are relocated to a more suitable area with less people.

In Russia, Canada and Alaska WWF assists the authorities who work closely with local communities to prevent and mitigate human-polar bear conflicts. The people are educated about conflict prevention, polar bears are chased out of villages and attractants such as walrus/whale carcasses are relocated far from towns. WWF can learn a lot from these and other programmes and implement successful measures elsewhere. Such as in Greenland, where an increase of human-polar bear conflicts has been reported and no measures have been taken yet to prevent this. The workshop was very helpful to Geoff and me and provided us with information about management options which we can implement in the WWF strategy on how to deal with human-polar bear conflicts in the Arctic.

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