Polar bear attack on woman and boy was unusual and ‘extraordinarily rare’

A recent polar bear attack on a woman and boy in Alaska was “extraordinarily rare,” an animal expert said Newsweek.

The polar bear entered the town of Wales, Alaska, on Tuesday and chased “several residents” before fatally attacking the woman and child, Alaska State Troopers said in a release. The bear was shot and killed by another resident.

Alaska State Troopers said Tuesday afternoon that they were still in the process of contacting relatives and that officials from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game were traveling to the area “as weather conditions permit.”

There are an estimated 4,000 to 7,000 polar bears in the state of Alaska. Polar bear attacks on humans are rare, although they can occasionally occur in Arctic communities close to the bears’ habitats.

This undated file photo shows a polar bear baring its teeth. A rare attack on a woman and a boy took place in a remote Alaskan village on January 17, 2023. The polar bear chased other residents before turning on the pair and being fatally shot by another person.
Thorsten Spoerlein/Getty

Geoff York, Senior Director of Conservation at Polar Bears International and an expert on human-polar bear coexistence, told Newsweek that this case was particularly rare.

“I definitely want to stress how rare this attack is. Most polar bear attacks happen in the ice-free season when it’s warmer (and) when there’s less sea ice. That’s when historically we’ve seen more problems between humans and bears, York said. “Having a fatal encounter in January in northern Alaska is extraordinarily rare.”

The last fatal polar bear attack to occur in Alaska was in December 1990. Like Tuesday’s, the 1990 attack was unprovoked. York said that in 1990 it had been a thin and hungry bear.

With this latest case, experts still don’t know the details of the bear’s condition or age, meaning it’s hard to know why it attacked. But data shows scientists that bears that attack humans usually fall into one of two categories.

“Most bear attacks are from either males who are in a growth spurt like teenage humans, and so they eat a lot of food and have high energy requirements. And in those cases, while they’re not starving, per se, they “are very hungry because they’re going through the growth phases, and they are also much more naive. They’re less experienced with potential threats,” York said.

“At the other end of the spectrum are older bears at the end of their lives who are injured and have trouble getting enough calories in. They’re looking for alternative sources. So we don’t know yet in this case, but it would wouldn’t surprise me if it fell into one of those two categories.”

When a bear is in poor body condition, it will tend to take higher risks, such as wandering in communities and attacking a person.

Communities that coexist with polar bears often have guidelines in place to help mitigate conflict. But locals typically tend to be more vigilant during the summer, when there is less ice and an increased chance of polar bears migrating inland.

Although fatal attacks remain rare, experts are concerned that they will increase due to climate change.

“Historically, there are times of the year in the winter when you feel like they can let your hair down, so to speak, where bears are out on the ice doing their thing and you have a very, very low probability of running into in them.” York said.

“And so that was in that window where historically people would feel pretty safe. So clearly, as these changes happen in the ecosystem and with the sea ice in these regions, it becomes much more dynamic.”

As the climate warms, there is less sea ice for polar bears to live in, meaning they will inevitably migrate into communities.

“It’s certainly consistent with what we expect to see across the Arctic as the ecosystem is rapidly changing,” York said. “This is a problem for the whole area as we see the Arctic transform and warm to almost four degrees faster than the rest of the planet.”

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