During a snowmobile expedition in the Norwegian far north earlier this year, a polar bear was spotted standing still, some 900 meters away. Their guide decided to approach the predator to take a closer look, effectively spurring the animal to flee.
"The regulations specifically state that it is forbidden to approach polar bears in such a way that they are disturbed, regardless of the distance," the Svalbard governor's office said in a statement cited by the Norwegian TV channel TV2.
Svalbard, located 1,600 km from the North Pole and twice the size of Belgium, is known to be home to a thousand polar bears, which've enjoyed protected status since 1973. According to aerial estimates by the Norwegian Polar Institute, there were about 3,000 polar bears in the Barents Sea area. By contrast, Svalbard's main settlement, Longyearbyen, boasts a population of about 2,000 residents, as opposed to 2,600 in the entire archipelago.
A range of Svalbard polar bear tours and safaris takes place between May and September, amid the midnight sun and melting ice, which both facilitate navigation.
The Polar bear is the largest bear species on Earth, with males often reaching weights of up to 700 kilograms. In 1995, a male bear weighing a record 850 kilograms was shot on the Svalbard island of Hopen.
Most notably, a starving polar bear attacked a party of schoolchildren organized by the British School Exploring Society some 40 kilometers off Longyearbyen in August 2011. After inflicting deadly wounds on one of the pupils, the bear was shot dead by one of the expedition leaders, who himself suffered severe head and facial injuries.
A subsequent enquiry by Norwegian investigators ruled that that the attack could have been prevented had the expedition members stayed in cabins instead of tents, used guard-dogs and had deployed someone on polar bear watch. However, since none of these additional safety precautions were required by law, none of the leaders faced prosecution.
However, it is legally binding to carry polar bear deterrents, usually a heavy caliber signal pistol. Pepper spray, on the other hand, is discouraged by the Svalbard authorities.