11 August 2011

Svalbard Tragedy

On the 6th August on the arctic island of Svlabard a 17 year old British school boy named Horatio Chappie was mauled to death by a polar bear. Two other boys sharing the tent were badly injured as was a trip leader who tried to shot the bear. This is clearly a tragedy for all concerned, not least the boy and his family. Polar bears are serious shit! They are the only mammal that routinely hunt humans. The world get a whole lot scarier when you are not at the top of the food chain and there is a hungry, skillful 300 kg predator out to get you.

Chappie was on a British Schools Exploring Society expedition. BSES is a charity that aims to get young adults out on adventures in remote parts of the World. That is something I am fully in favour of. Its clearly better that smashing up your community and looting a flat screen TV and a pair of trainers. I even have a couple of friends who went on BSES trips and have nothing but good things to say about the society and the trip they went on.

However, I was talking to a Norwegian friend today who has spent a lot of time in Svalbard and knows a thing or two about avoid and dealing with polar bears. He was rather scathing about the BSES organization and from what he said I have to agree that this tragedy would appear to have been avoidable. He made the following points

1. The group appears to have only had one rifle. This is not enough for any group, there is no redundancy in the system and if the rifle fails, as appears to have done four times here then the entire group is defenseless. Everyone in Svalbard carried a rifle. When Hilary Clinton visited the CIA demanded that the Governor of Svalbard disarm all the people wandering through town with guns. He laughed at them

2. When camping in a small group people set out trip wires attached to flairs to scare the bears and alert the campers. With a larger group such as this one it is normal to post a guard with people taking two hours shifts. This appears not to have been done, despite the group being large enough for everyone to take a turn and still get some sleep. Why?

3. The trip wire system appears not to have worked. Why?

4. They were also carrying a flair gun that didn’t work. Its not looking very good guys

Lots of questions and none of them bring back the dead boy or diminish the impact of the tragedy. There have been several incidents in the last few years and it appears that the shrinking ice coverage means that the bears are unable to catch seals and are getting more and more desperate as they become more hungry. What ever the cause I hope that the BSES tighten up their act but I also hope that they don’t stop taking kids on wild adventures in very remote places.

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