Human Wildlife Conflict Tech Challenge: Polar Bear Case

In the Arctic, hundreds of polar bears have been killed over the last two decades as a result of human-wildlife conflict. You can help prevent this. 

WWF and WILDLABS challenge you to develop a new, or improved, technology tool to reduce such interactions between humans and carnivores like polar bears and tigers. The winning solution will receive a prize of up to 30,000 EUR each. With this prize, you will refine your solution and field test it with the support of WWF's landscape teams.

Published Date: 2017/07/03

What is causing the Human-Polar Bear Conflict? 

Sea ice habitat loss due to climate change is affecting polar bears and their main prey - seals - which also rely on sea ice. Longer ice free periods mean that polar bears spend more time on land and increase chances they will look for food around human settlements. This increases the probability of interactions between people and polar bears that can lead to conflict. Conflicts are increasing over time, as ice-free seasons lengthen.

The Challenge

Develop / improve a robust early detection tool for polar bears, that can cope with the Arctic environment, is affordable on local level, is easily accessible and operated and requires little maintenance.

Why an Early Detection Tool? 

An early detection tool would give people time to respond effectively to an approaching bear. They are no longer surprised by an encounter and will have more time to choose the best response in order to prevent escalation into conflict.

A young female polar bear wandered into the Tobolski oil field (20km east of Varandei) - the residents fed her with chicken and pasta. After some days people stared to ineffectively drive her away. Eventually Taras Sipko, a bizon immobilization expert was called in to help. They helicoptered her out to an island 29 km away from the oil field, but she returned 2 days later looking for more chicken and pasta. She attacked a woman who works at the oil field, who had to be brought to the hospital for treatment. The polar bear was then transported further away. 

© Aleksei VOLKOV / WWF

What You Need to Know

Who

Polar bear and the local people of the Arctic

Where

Greenland, Alaska (US), Svalbard (Norway) Canada, Russia

What conflicts occur
  • Damage to property (destruction of buildings and their contents, destruction of snowmobile seats and other plastic or rubber products or equipment)
  • Raiding of food caches
  • Injuries and fatal incidents with people
  • Sled dogs killed
  • Polar bears killed in defence of life and property
Exacerbating circumstances

Food and shelter are essential to survival in the harsh conditions of the Arctic, you don’t want to lose those.

Human loss

21 human fatalities and 60 cases of injury due to polar bear attacks were officially recorded in the Arctic as well as 64 attempted attacks on people (1870 – 2014). The actual numbers are likely to be higher as not all cases are officially documented.  

Animal loss

Hundreds of polar bears have been killed in defence throughout the Arctic over the past twenty years.

Specifics of the conflict
  • The majority of attacks on people by bears were classed as predatory (rather than killing for self-defence or because they felt threatened) and many conflicts have involved bears that are underweight, although this is not overwhelmingly the case.
  • Most conflicts resulting in human mortality involved people who are not experienced with polar bears, such as scientists and tourists.
  • Conflicts happen predominantly in and around settlements, but also occur at hunting camps/cabins, industry camps, scientific camps and sometimes tourist camps.
  • Usually a conflict involves one bear and in some cases mothers with cubs. In areas where multiple bears are gathered around a waste dump or bone pile, conflict might involve multiple adult bears.
  • Polar bears are difficult to detect and live solitary lives. This makes it hard to track individuals. Animals living in herds such as elephants can be tracked when one individual is fitted with a radio collar or other transmitting device. There are no known technological early warning systems currently in place to detect polar bear presence.
What are present solutions to Human-Polar Bear Conflict?
  • Polar bear patrols that escort children from and to school and that chase away polar bears  when they come too close to villages (in particular during the hours of darkness when bear activity in town is highest)
  • Education on how to prevent conflict (how to deal with waste, how to react to a surprise encounter, how to use deterrents, how to reduce attractants, etc.)
  • Deterrents: tools and equipment to scare off polar bears when approaching towns or settlements (flare guns, rubber bullets, bean bags, cracker shells, live rounds, bear spray, sticks, torches, dogs, horns and sirens, vehicles such as snow mobiles, human voices shouting etc.)
  • Electric fences and trip wires to protect dog yards, food storages or camps
  • Bear safe food and waste storage (bins and containers)
  • Removal of other attractants: replacement of (whale) carcasses away from town to reduce smells around town
  • Building security: bars and screens in front of doors and windows, closure of open spaces underneath buildings (prevent polar bear hiding places) 
  • Physical removal, temporary housing and relocating bears away from the community

A bear safe food and waste storeage container in Churchill, Canada.

© WWF-US / Elisabeth Kruger

Tools for early detection of polar bears that exist or are under development

Trip wires (only preliminary trials done)

Are placed around camps. When polar bear trips over wire a loud siren and bright light will scare the bear and inform residents of its presence. Pro: simple set up and portable device. Con: people do not invest sufficient time / are not sufficiently trained or serious about maintaining this safety tool.

Motion detectors (only preliminary trials done)

Use passive infrared sensors to detect body heat and motion along a line of sight of up to maximum 24m (80ft) in front of the detector unit, creating an invisible fence around a site. An alarm goes off and/or a light switches on when the sensor of the detection unit detects heat or movement within its sensing beam. Pro: easy to install, resets itself, operational in darkness or reduced visibility and under cold conditions. Cons: not suitable for large settlements, also activated by other animals, people and wind or snow, and snow could cover the sensor which prevents the system from working properly.

Guard dogs

With their sharp sense of smell, dogs can detect approaching polar bears that cannot be detected visibly by people. They thus increase safety in an area with restricted view. Pro: accessible and culturally acceptable to local people who often already keep sled dogs, relatively cheap solution not affected by power cuts or faulty technology. Con: even experienced dogs could fail to detect bears when sleeping or alarm too late, dogs and their food might in fact attract bears, training requires lots of time and investment.

Ground-based radar 

Ground-based radar uses a unit mounted in a location that allows unimpeded views towards polar bear movement corridors. The unit then uses radar to detect bears at a distance of up to 3 km, 24 hours a day. Once detected, the system, coupled with a visual camera, tracks the bears in real time to enable operators to decide when and whether to respond. This system will be tested for the first time in Fall, 2017.

Environmental details
  • Heavy snowfall, deep snow, (snow) storms, extremely low temperatures, large open spaces with a lack of vegetation, no trees and few physical structures (to attach any system).
  • In summer/ fall little to no snow in some areas. Few buildings - polar bear could be standing around the corner of the building and a person might not know.
  • Size of towns and settlements vary from 150 to around 3,000 inhabitants and cover around 7 to 2.5 square kilometers. Numerous cabins and trapping, hunting, fishing camps are distributed further out of town.
Other information to consider

Cell phone and internet access in most villages is unreliable/erratic. 

Ready to develop your idea?

Over in the community , we' ve set up a HWC Tech Challenge group as a space for challenge participants to connect directly with the field conservationists who work at the frontlines of human-wildlife conflict. Use the specific Asian elephant, tiger and polar bear case threads to ask questions that come up during your design process, call for collaborators, or to find out more about human wildlife conflict.