Human garbage is a plentiful but dangerous source of food for polar bears finding it harder to hunt seals on dwindling sea ice

More than 50 hungry polar bears invaded the Russian coastal village of Belushya Guba over a period of three months, attracted by the local dump. Some bears entered homes and businesses by ripping doors off hinges and climbing through windows. These invasions have been steadily increasing in Arctic settlements, though this case, in the winter of 2019, was one of the worst. While few people have been attacked, the number of dead bears has climbed.

I’m a biologist who has studied bears for the past 30 years. Over millennia, polar bears evolved an ability to locate food in the harsh Arctic climate. Now, as climate change causes a loss of sea ice, their foraging season is shorter and they’re forced onto land far more than ever before. Once on land, bears’ noses draw them into villages where they find ample unsecured food.

My colleagues and I recently published a paper on how human food and waste are becoming a major threat to polar bear existence – and jeopardize human safety. We also offer solutions.

Masters of scent and memory

Polar bears live in an extremely austere environment where finding food drives their every move. To aid them in their perpetual hunt for food, polar bears have one of the most highly developed senses of smell of any animal on the planet. Their ability to detect scents from afar can be a problem, however, when the scent is not coming from seals – their main food resource.

Smelly substances associated with human villages can also attract polar bears. These scents include game meat hung outside homes, open dumps, barbecue grills and even bird seed.

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