The Bear Hunt: Only the liver is wasted once the Inuits strike

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The Independent Online

Inuit hunters call it the nanniaq, the quest to track, chase and kill the animal they consider to be king of the beasts that stalk the ice floes and plains of the Arctic.

For centuries, indigenous tribesmen have used dogs and wooden sleds to pursue polar bears. The dog teams harass and surround their prey before the men move in for the kill, armed with just a wooden spear. If the huntsman failed to place his blow correctly, he risked the scything blow of a polar bear's claws and its preferred method of slaying a meal, crushing the skull between its jaws.

Nowadays, the Inuit can keep their distance from nanuq, as the bear is known in their language, by using a hunting rifle and stalking their quarry on snowmobiles. But the annual bear-hunt remains a practice steeped in technique and tradition.

Working in temperatures as low as minus 35C, the pursuit can last days as the hunters search out tracks and droppings in the snow. When they spot a bear, they issue the "caw" of a raven, a bird that frequently follows the huge carnivores to scavenge on discarded carcasses. The noise would be familiar to the animal and can even cause it to slow down to investigate.

Working in teams, the hunters trap the bear on the ice between open water and the shore before felling it with a shot to the heart. It is then butchered on the spot. Almost everything is used: the thick fur is made into trousers or footwear and the meat is prized for stews. Sinews are used for sewing clothes while the fat goes into food or oil lamps and the large canine teeth are still prized as talismans. The only part of the beast that is discarded is the liver, which contains a poisonous concentration of vitamin A and is either thrown into the sea or buried to stop the dogs from eating it.

Legends and superstitions about nanuq abound in Inuit society. The bears are thought to have the power to change shape, converting themselves into other animals or ice to evade hunters. One taboo is that a successful huntsman must remove his outer clothes before entering his home, mimicking the belief that a polar bear removes it fur once safely inside its den and assumes human form.