A longer summer with less ice means a harder trek for polar bears, who use the sea ice as frozen bridges to get to their dinner of choice: seals.
In the past five years Inuits in Ittoqqortoormiit say the bears have abandoned the difficult hunt and headed into town where they often rummage through garbage. They used to be a rare sight. In the one week I was there filming, six bears were spotted.
Ittoqqortoormiit’s sled dogs, considered some of the best in Greenland, are the first line of defense against wayward polar bears. Dozens of them are strategically placed along Ittoqqortoormiit’s border. Normally they’d be resting before a busy winter season. These days there’s little downtime. Their barking alerts residents who then call one man.
Erling Madsen used to be the mayor of the town. Today he leads the so-called Polar Bear Patrol. I hitched a ride on the back of his ATV while he canvassed the border of town after a recent sighting. The patrol was created in 2011 in an effort to protect both humans and bears. Madsen, along with other armed men, is deployed as soon as a bear is spotted. They only kill a bear if it’s about to attack. That is the condition between Inuits and Denmark, who settled Greenland and helped establish the patrol.
“I recently had to shoot one,” he shouted as we zipped though an area known as Walrus Bay. “It was the third time it came into town. The last time it got too close to people.”
Sometimes using a gun isn’t always an option. “One time there were too many people around. It wasn’t safe. I had to pick up a big rock and throw it at him,” he explained.
What struck me the most about the Inuits of Ittoqqortoormiit is how comfortable they are discussing climate change and global warming. While the topic has become politically charged elsewhere in the world, local Inuits say it’s hard to debate what’s already happening.
“We’re trying to adapt. Like bear, it’s become difficult for us to hunt seals,” said one local who declined to give his name. “These days, we’re accustomed to much longer hunting trips. And we never come back empty handed. These days the next catch is never guaranteed.”
— Image and story by Pulitzer Center grantee Jonathan Vigliotti. Greenland, 2013.