In Search of Nanuq: The Inuit Culture of Polar Bear Hunting

Everything around you is a sea of white. The sun reflecting off a landscape of snow and ice would blind you if it weren’t for the protection of your goggles. Distance is hard to judge in this barren landscape, but nearby—much too close for comfort—stands a polar bear. It eyes you suspiciously, perhaps even hungrily, upon its hind legs. Nothing but a hundred yards of ice and cold wind separates you from the massive predator. Primal instincts take over. Your body is in full fight-or-flight mode.

At this moment you wonder who is the hunter and who is the hunted? The presence of your Inuit guide and his team of sled dogs offers some reassurance; his people have lived in this Arctic landscape for centuries. He has the skills and knowledge to survive here.

The Inuit not only endure the harsh climate of the Arctic; they thrive in it. Traditional Inuit culture was based entirely on subsistence hunting, and survival was directly dependent upon the ability to harvest wildlife. All parts of hunted wildlife would be used. Meat and organs were often the only food available. Skins became footwear and clothes, bones became tools and weapons, and fat tissue became oil for lamps. Nothing was ever wasted. Harvesting seals, whales, walruses and caribou sustained many of the Inuit’s basic needs, but the most prized prey was Nanuq, the polar bear.

The traditional Inuit polar bear hunt was a grueling and dangerous affair. An Inuit hunter would set off across the ice for several days equipped only with his dog team, a few supplies and a harpoon. Once a polar bear was spotted, the hunter set a plan to approach, and when close enough, the dogs were released to corner the bear. On icy footing, the hunter inched closer to the mashing teeth and piercing claws to fatally deliver the harpoon. A fight to the death would ensue. If the hunter survived, he paid respect to the spirit of the polar bear by hanging its skin in an honored place in his home for several days.

Inuit share a deeply spiritual connection to the animals they rely on for subsistence, and this is especially true for polar bears. They believe that the spirits of humans and polar bears are interchangeable. Inuit lore tells of polar bears turning into men, walking upright, talking and shedding their skins in their homes. Inuit appreciate the polar bear’s strength, patience, curiosity, speed, and its maternal devotion to its cubs. Many Inuit believe that their ancestors learned how to hunt seals by watching polar bears.

Today the Inuit live much as they have for millennia. Still living largely off the land, Inuit are dependent upon cultural traditions that are passed down from one generation to the next. Although hunting methods have changed, with snowmobiles replacing dog sleds and rifles replacing harpoons, hunting is still vital for Inuit families. Inuit continue to hunt seals, whales, walruses, and polar bears for subsistence.

Polar bear hunting is crucial to Inuit livelihoods in the Canadian Arctic. Polar bear meat feeds many Inuit families, and a good polar bear pelt can fetch upwards of $10,000. In a place where milk can be more than $10 per gallon and jobs are rare, a successful polar bear hunt can mean the difference between survival and starvation.

Hunting of polar bears is regulated by a rigorous quota system that incorporates both traditional knowledge and science. The quota allows for the harvest of only 500-600 bears in Canada annually and includes all known human-caused bear mortality; whether by subsistence harvest, guided hunts, or bears killed in defense of life and property. Each Inuit community is granted a portion of the annual polar bear harvest quota. The council of elders then issues subsistence-hunting permits by lottery to individual members of their community.

Inuit communities do have the ability to sell a limited number of tags to non-local hunters. These tourist-hunters are willing to pay from $25,000 to $35,000 or more to harvest a polar bear under the community quota system. All visiting hunters are required to hunt by dogsled, and they are given a true cultural experience. Bears are now harvested by rifle, rather than harpoon, but otherwise every effort is made to preserve the Inuit tradition. If the travelling hunter is successful and doesn’t take the hide home, the skin is either used by the community or traded. All meat derived from the hunting of polar bears goes directly to the Inuit guide and his family or to the community food bank.

Harvest and trade of polar bears is nutritionally, culturally, and economically important to the Inuit. Nonetheless, these values are weighed in a balance with the perspectives of people who don’t live anywhere near the Arctic. Unfortunately, hunters traveling to hunt polar bears are affected by the policies set by their country of residence.

In 2008, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) listed the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). USFWS cited the potential impacts of climate change and projected loss of sea ice over a period of fifty years to be the main threat to polar bears. The ESA listing, in concert with the protections offered by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, effectively ended importation of polar bear hunting trophies into the United States.

The ESA listing resulted in an immediate loss of U.S. hunters traveling to the Arctic, and an instant loss of revenue being generated by hunting. An inadequate amount of notice was given to the Inuit. They did not have time to put in place measures to soften the economic blow or adapt to the policy decision. While hunters traveling from countries other than the U.S. continued to hunt polar bears, it was not enough to fill the gap left from the change in U.S. policy.

The people who rely on hunting do not understand why the U.S. made such a decision for polar bear when the worldwide population of bears has increased in number over the past 40 years. In 2015, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimated that there are now 26,000 polar bears in the Arctic, over five times as many bears as the estimated 5,000 that existed in the 1970’s. Decades of sound conservation management have shown that Canada and its indigenous people are fully capable of sustainably harvesting polar bears, and the Inuit have been involved every step of the way.

In time, the Inuit have started working to fill that gap. It didn’t take long to realize that it was the entire hunting experience and the culture of the Arctic that drew hunters to their frozen wilderness. Now, an increasing number of U.S. hunters are seeking the cultural experience of a polar bear hunt, and they are willing to pay top dollar and give the hide to the local people.

In full fight-or-flight, standing side by side with your guide, you are one of those hunters who has come to live with the Inuit, to share their culture, and to hunt a polar bear. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience that you will never forget – the moment when you decided whether you were the hunter or the hunted.