Canada: At home with Polar bears

Cuddly? Polar bears are deadly killers, which is why Churchill employs a very special police force

THE MOST important telephone number in Churchill is 675-2327. Each of the 1,000 inhabitants knows it by heart – 675-2327 is the number of the Polar Bear Police, whose only post is in Churchill, Manitoba, in north-east Canada.

The most important telephone number in Churchill is 675-2327. Each of the 1,000 inhabitants knows it by heart – 675-2327 is the number of the Polar Bear Police, whose only post is in Churchill, Manitoba, in north-east Canada.

This is the polar bear capital of the world. Every year in November the inhabitants have to share their town with 200 polar bears, among the most dangerous predators on earth. Fast, strong and unpredictable, polar bears might look clumsy and cuddly but they can attack without warning.

Just before winter begins, Churchill has a six-week "season". Adventure tourists from around the world head to the Arctic Circle to see a unique natural spectacle; hundreds of polar bears waiting until the Hudson Bay freezes over so that they can hunt on the ice for seals, their favourite food.

A warning notice "Polar Bear Alert – Stop, don't walk in this area" is situated at the edge of town in front of a few rocks. Behind it, the slowly freezing Bay. Our guide, Denise, has twice seen a bear appear suddenly from behind the rocks.

I ask what you should do in such a case. "Take your clothes off and slowly walk backwards," she laughs. Bears are naturally curious, apparently, and stop at each garment to sniff it. You must never run away or look them directly in the eyes as that annoys them. Far better to arrive freezing cold at the next house than risk a stand-off with a bear. In Churchill all doors are supposed to remain unlocked at all times for just such emergencies.

When I tried the back door at our hotel, the Aurora Inn, however, it was locked and there were tracks directly in front of the window. Giant prints the sizes of two or three dinner plates. Luckily yesterday's bear was already in the Polar Bear Compound, the polar bear jail. Whoever spots a polar bear in the closed zone of town calls the rangers from Natural Resources, who challenge the intruding bear and knock him out with a tranquilliser gun. The sleeping white giant is placed in transit detention at the polar bear jail just beyond the centre of town.

Repeat offenders end up in the zoo. As we arrived there were just two polar bears under lock and key although there is space for 32. When the jail is full, they are flown 30 miles to the north. The bears are given ear markers so that they can be recognised again. Bears that are caught four times are considered to be hopeless, "never learn better" cases. Used to human settlements, they are a danger and so are sold to zoos around the world. Last year the rangers caught and freed 108 bears.

Driving out with Debra Wazney in her tundra buggy, a converted bus with giant buggy wide wheels, to the Wapusk National Park, in the monotonous, treeless and endlessly flat tundra, I imagined the GIs who once fought war games here. We almost missed our first bear as it lay in a lazy doze on the frozen ground.

Feeding is forbidden and climbing down from the vehicle would also be dangerous. We were warned to hang neither an arm nor a camera out over the open platform. A polar bear can travel at a speed of 50km an hour and he can kill with just one swipe of his massive paw.

Ahead of us a giant polar bear had reared up and was sniffing at another buggy. His mouth easily reached the slightly open window, but he was only sniffing. His nose is his most important "weapon". With it he can smell seals under a metre-thick ice cover. The bears are completely silent, they don't roar or hiss. They kill quietly too, Debra says.

On the second day of our tundra buggy tour the bears loved us. First, two males gave an impressive wrestling bout lasting for several minutes. They were only playing. We could see their sharp teeth and claws with our telescopic lenses. And then we saw a female with a pair of two-month-old cubs. They had killed a bird and were chewing the feathers. On the way back we spotted bears from the Polar Bear Compound being flown out. They hung in a net below the helicopter taking them back to the tundra. They would wake just before being released in to freedom.

Polar bear safaris to Churchill are organised by International Wildlife Adventures, Winnipeg (001 204 949 2050, www.wildlifeadventures.com). A five-night trip including two nights in Winnipeg and three in Churchill costs about C$3,000 and includes flights to Churchill, tundra buggy tours and accommodation

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