In the wild, polar bears are solitary animals. They only come together in groups when they’re mating, raising cubs or sharing a food source such as a whale carcass.
In general, polar bears only attack when they’re hungry, feeling threatened or protecting their young. But as climate change pushes the bears further afield in search of food, encounters are more common and attacks on humans more serious.
If a polar bear approaches you, it’s best to stay still and slowly back away. But it’s important to assess the animal’s behavior: Is it curious or acting in a predatory way? If it’s exhibiting these signs, or if it lowers its head and appears stressed, it’s time to leave.
You may also see a polar bear make loud vocalizations, stare at you or even approach you nose-to-nose, but these behaviors shouldn’t be taken as aggressive signals. These are bears communicating with one another through smell. It’s how they find a seal breathing hole in an ice lead, for example.
A new study found that between 1870 and 2014, 73 polar bears attacked people throughout their range (Greenland, Canada, Russia, US and Norway). Nineteen of these were fatal. The researchers concluded that adult males in below-average body condition are the most likely to attack humans because they’re starving and will kill for a meal. For more information, read this article from Yale Environment 360. WWF is working to reduce the number of people killed and injured by polar bears in the Arctic. By learning about the threats facing these majestic creatures, we can help ensure they survive in the wild for generations to come.