Nov 032017
 


KLEMTU, GREAT BEAR RAINFOREST, BRITISH COLUMBIA – There are stories about the white bears that hide in the deep forest of British Columbia’s coast. Old stories, handed down from one generation to the next for thousands of years, since the last Ice Age gripped the world, and glaciers licked the edge of the rain forest.

One tale, told by the Kitasoo/Xai’Xais Nation, says that as the sheets of ice began to retreat, Raven—the creator of all things—made the animal known as the spirit bear to remind him of the ice and snow.

It’s a story that speaks not only to First Nations’ connection with wildlife but also to their deep roots in the Great Bear Rainforest, an area the size of Switzerland that’s home to some 20,000 First Nations people.

A Kermode bear, also known as a spirit bear, climbs a crab apple tree to grab its fruit in the Great Bear Rainforest, in British Columbia. These rare white bears are sacred to First Nations people. Photograph by Paul Nicklen, National Geographic Creative

Yet in the 1980s when Doug Neasloss, the elected chief of the Kitasoo/Xai’Xais, was growing up, he never heard the origin story of the spirit bear. In fact he never heard of spirit bears at all because for decades the stories about these white-coated relatives of black bears were kept secret. Elders feared that if word of their existence spread, spirit bears—like black and grizzly bears—would be pursued and killed by fur trappers or trophy hunters.

Searching for the Spirit Bear In September 2010, photographer Paul Nicklen entered British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest in search of the elusive Kermode bear.

So in the late 1990s when Neasloss was starting to work as a wildlife guide and his boss told him to go out and look for a white bear, he was skeptical. You guys are out to lunch, he remembers thinking—there’s no such thing as a white bear.

But Neasloss dutifully ventured into the bush. He was just unzipping his trousers to relieve himself when a ghostly bear padded into the forest and lay down on a bed of moss 30 feet in front of him. The bear began gnawing on a salmon it had caught in a nearby stream, unconcerned by Neasloss’s presence. A ray of sun momentarily broke through the clouds. “It was magical,” he says.

Spirit bears, also known as Kermode bears, are among the world’s rarest ursines, found only in the remote archipelago of British Columbia’s central coast. They’re a subspecies of the black bear, born white when two dark-furred parents carry an obscure genetic mutation. The British Columbian government estimates there are 400 spirit bears in the province, and hunting them is illegal.

A spirit bear cub huddles with its sibling. For many years First Nations people kept the existence of the white bears secret. Elders feared that if word of them spread, they would be pursued and killed by fur trappers or trophy hunters. Photograph by Ian McAllister, National Geographic Creative

It wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to say that Neasloss’s encounter with that bear helped redirect the fate of his community. At the time his hometown of Klemtu was struggling with about 80 percent unemployment and a host of social ills. The tiny town—on an island only accessible by plane or boat—was still struggling to recover from the loss of its fish cannery decades before, and logging companies were pressuring local officials to cut down the surrounding rain forest to create jobs.

Neasloss had another idea. He believed the forest was worth more intact, and the bears it sheltered—grizzly, black, and Kermode—were worth more to the Kitasoo/Xai’Xais alive than killed by trophy hunters. If Klemtu capitalized on tourists’ fondness for bears and invested in the ecotourism beginning to take hold in the region, perhaps the village could bounce back without sacrificing its natural resources. It was worth a shot.

A BEAR IN THE BUSH IS WORTH TWO IN THE HAND

In 1999 Neasloss helped launch the Spirit Bear Lodge from a little red-roofed float house anchored at Klemtu’s docks. Today a luxurious new lodge accommodates visitors from around the world, most of whom come to tour the nearby islands in hope of spotting and photographing bears. All profits go to the tribe. Ecotourism is Klemtu’s second-largest industry, and unemployment has fallen to 10 percent.

Doug Neasloss, elected chief of the Kitasoo/Xai’Xais Nation, helped launch the Spirit Bear Lodge, in Klemtu, which jump-started ecotourism in the region. Photograph by Krista Langlois

In part because of this growing dependence on ecotourism, and because of their long-standing connection to the land, Kitasoo/Xai’Xais was one of 27 First Nations that negotiated with the Canadian government to permanently conserve 85 percent of the Great Bear Rainforest. Finalized in 2016, the Great Bear legislation was a success for both indigenous activists and international environmental groups.

But in Neasloss’s view it had one gaping hole: It failed to end trophy hunting for grizzly and black bears.

The Kitasoo/Xai’Xais and other Coastal First Nations have never signed treaties giving up their land rights, and in 2012 they decided to ban trophy hunting in their traditional territories. The British Columbian government, however, exerts legal jurisdiction over much of the Great Bear Rainforest, and despite the nations’ ban, the provincial government has continued to issue tags and licenses to kill grizzly and black bears for their heads or fur. Many indigenous people consider this an affront to their sovereignty and values.

“Our people do not believe in killing an animal unless it is taken for food,” says MaryAnn Enevoldsen, elected chief of the Homalco Nation, which runs a grizzly-viewing area about 200 miles south of Klemtu. “We can show thousands of people the bears in their natural habitat without harming or stressing them out. On the other hand, the ‘pleasure’ of killing a bear only happens once and gratifies a few individuals.”

A Kermode bear eats a fish in a moss-draped rain forest. The Kitasoo/Xai’Xais Nation has been fighting to make their forest off-limits to hunters and instead promote bear-viewing tourism. Photograph by Paul Nicklen, National Geographic Creative

A study by the Center for Responsible Travel found that in 2012 visitors to the Great Bear Rainforest spent 12 times as much money on bear watching as on trophy hunting—and Doug Neasloss’ experience suggests that the two activities cannot co-exist. Several years ago, he was leading a group of tourists among the maze of islands near Klemtu when he glimpsed something dark and motionless in a river estuary. He thought it might be a dead seal. As he nudged the boat closer for a look, the object resolved into the headless carcass of a grizzly. His clients were horrified. Neasloss says hunters make bears more skittish, which means tourists are less likely to see them.

According to the British Columbian Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations, and Rural Development, some 250 of the province’s 15,000 grizzlies are killed by hunters each year, nine in the Great Bear Rainforest. Hunting the province’s 100,000 black bears is also allowed, but there’s no annual quota system. Government officials have long claimed that the number of bears killed is sustainable, but some First Nations’ biologists question the government’s science.

Among them is William Housty, a biologist with the Heiltsuk Nation. Housty says that while government numbers are rough estimates extrapolated from a few overflights, his own department led a six-year, boots-on-the-ground mapping project using grizzly DNA that found wide variation in bear populations, especially as salmon runs have declined in recent years. (A spokeswoman for the provincial government agrees that DNA-based inventory is the “gold standard” and says her department welcomes peer-reviewed science from First Nations to augment its own estimates.)

Nonetheless, in reaction to a growing public outcry, British Columbia has announced that it will ban trophy hunting for grizzlies in the Great Bear Rainforest beginning November 30. Neasloss and others say this is welcome news for Coastal First Nations—but it doesn’t mean the fight to protect the bears of the Great Bear Rainforest is over.

For one thing there are still too few wildlife officers to enforce hunting regulations, which means much of the work will continue to fall to the Coastal Guardian Watchmen, a network of First Nations people who monitor, patrol, and enforce indigenous laws in parts of the Great Bear Rainforest that are too remote for federal or provincial officers to reach regularly. The Kitasoo/Xai’Xais are ramping up their Coastal Guardian Watchmen presence to deter poachers in the waning days of the grizzly hunt, but their efforts alone cost some $210,000 a year—a fraction of the funds activists say the network needs.

Kermode bears are found only in the remote archipelago of British Columbia’s central coast. A genetic mutation in some black bears gives Kermode bears their white fur. Photograph by Paul Nicklen, National Geographic Creative

In addition, as long as the British Columbian government continues to allow trophy hunting for black bears, Neasloss’s work isn’t done. That’s because black bears here are the progenitors of the spirit bears.

“Every time you issue a tag for someone to shoot a black bear, it could be carrying the recessive gene that produces the spirit bear,” he says. He’s currently meeting with government officials and working with other First Nations to convince the province also to ban trophy hunting for black bears in the Great Bear Rainforest.

A grizzly bear mother stands next to her cub on an estuary at low tide. Grizzlies, along with Kermode and black bears, are a big draw for tourists visiting the Great Bear Rainforest. Photograph by Ian McAllister, National Geographic Creative

SAVING THEIR CULTURE BY SAVING BEARS

For many First Nations people, ending trophy hunting isn’t just about saving wildlife or benefiting from the money bear-viewing brings to their communities. It’s also about cultural survival. Like many indigenous people, First Nations in the Great Bear Rainforest were marginalized for much of the past two centuries.

Traditional religious ceremonies called potlatches were banned by the Canadian government until the 1950s, and sacred regalia was burned as punishment for holding them. Thousands of children were sent to live at government-run “residential” schools, where many were physically abused and forced to abandon their culture. Languages, food, customs, stories, and rituals were all but lost.

Crab apples are a favorite food of British Columbia’s spirit bears. The coastal town of Klemtu used to have an unemployment rate of 80 percent, but bear-viewing ecotourism has helped reduce it to 10 percent. Photograph by Paul Nicklen, National Geographic Creative

Today, First Nations up and down the coast are reclaiming their culture, and bear-based ecotourism is a part of that. Many tribes are rebuilding the “big houses” where potlatches and other ceremonies are held, sometimes with money earned from tourist operations.

Coastal Guardian Watchmen are reconnecting with their traditional lands as they patrol for illegal hunting. And elders no longer fearful of poaching are starting to share the sacred stories about bears they’d kept silent for so long.

Just down a gravel road from the Spirit Bear Lodge is Klemtu’s big house, a massive cedar building constructed in 2001. It’s perched at the edge of the sea, surrounded by mist-shrouded cedars and spruce trees, with an opening in the roof to let out wood smoke. Inside, 24-year-old Barry Edgar is giving a tour.

A genetic mutation in some black bears gives Kermode bears their white fur. A 2012 study found that visitors to the Great Bear Rainforest spent 12 times as much money on bear watching as on trophy hunting. Photograph by Paul Nicklen, National Geographic Creative

He talks about a new online database that’s preserving digital recordings of traditional stories and about the new generation of children who will grow up hearing ancient tales about Kitasoo/Xai’Xais’ unique relationship with bears, told beneath the carved totem poles of the big house.

“Culture is like a flower,” Edgar explains as visitors snapped photos of the intricate carvings. “It needs to be in the sun to thrive. Tourism helped us survive because it forced us to remember things.”

This article was first published by National Geographic on 26 Oct 2017.


We invite you to share your opinion whether the Rare Spirit Bear should be protected from hunters? Please vote and leave your comments at the bottom of this page.

Should the Rare Spirit Bear Be Protected From Hunters?

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Editorial Comment: The purpose of this poll is to highlight important wildlife conservation issues and to encourage discussion on ways to stop wildlife crime. By leaving a comment and sharing this post you can help to raise awareness. Thank you for your support.

 

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Maggie Frazier

If the spirit bears are borne to black bears – trophy hunting really needs to be completely stopped! Apparently Canada’s attitude towards their native people was no different than the US! Having watched the “hearing” regarding drilling in ANWR (Alaska National Wildlife Refuge) & seeing the disregard from our “representatives to the native people’s opinions? Much has still not changed!

Naveen Chilakapati

Lovely photos

Linda Rae

Silly me, I thought they already were protected!

Ally Lehto

Yes

Brenda Boutin

All animals protected from hunters. Hunting is not a brave behavior.

Lynda Denny

All animals should be protected

Gitte Løyche

99% voted YES (so far)

Margaret Spiegel Mitchell

Yes protect them

Barb Miller

Rare spirit Bear, what else do you need to know..RARE…RARE.Of course

Tina York

Definitely

Rita Weisberg

Yes

Robert Otto

YES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Connie Wessel

YES!

Bill Nussbaum

YES

Mary Bradley

I believe we should leave wild animals and their habitats alone. We’ve taken enough from Mother Earth that was not ours to take…shameful!

Donna Errickson-Roberts

Absolutely!

Selora Lawrence

Yes

Fran Leard

All of our animals need to be protected. Not slaughtered by these cowards.

Debb Antona Donham

I agree with Bernadine Applegate

Chandra Kulupana

Voted YES& shared

Jeanette Tibbs

ALL animals should be protected from hunters. Period

Tonia Vassila

They should be protected and cared for

Vickie Gray

this should be a no brainer why would you want to kill such a beautiful animal ….seek and destroy pretty pathedic cant beleive they are not protected and it has to go to a vote!

Roxann Watson

ALL BEARS, AND WILDLIFE SHOULD BE PROTECTED FROM HUMANS.

Ozzyman Young Rudolph

Yes for sure

Angela Hannington

Why is this even a question?

Lisa Marie Maley DeFreitas

Yes , of course.

GiannaBagheera Macias-Ballesteros

All bears, white, brown, black, sun bears, ALL WILD LIFE SHOULD BE RESPECTED AND PROTECTED.

Jolene Gibson

YES!

Linda French

YES yes yes

Dennis Holt

All bear should be protected from hunters!

Priska Hediger

Most definitely!

Jane Fallon

Yes of course , all Hunter’s should be killed ,like they murder poor inorcent animals

Charles Wayne Tesh

Yes

Maria Anna Mavromichalis

yes of course!!!!!!

Carina Eriksson

They most definitely should be protected! After watching all the beautiful photos and the video, I have a better understanding of why they are called “spirit bears”, Gorgeous creature!!

Pamela Griffin

Yes

Joyce Barnes

Yep

Norma Hurt

yes 100 n times

Kymberly

Absolutely should be. Humans wont be happy until everything is extinct and destroyed.

Beverly Wilbanks Schmidt

Most definitely.

annah

Absolutely all wildlife need protection from hunters and governments who sell them out for financial gain, authorities across the globe know of the annihilation taking place in the animal kingdom, yet not one country has the courage or compassion to put a stop to the animal massacre, the vulnerable are paying the price of human greed.

Diamond Murphy

Yes indeed it should all wild animals should be protected..

Gwendoline Merrick

It doesn’t seem like 10 years ago – amazing photographer. I believe he’s from Baffin Island and takes sub aqua photos too! Of course the Spirit Bear should have max protection! How could anyone think otherwise?

Stephen Abarno

YES………

Sabrina Walsh

Of Course!

Patty Mays

Yes! They must be protected!

Ariane Lawrence

Yes

Lois Schulz

yes

Irene Kucyk

just leave them alone – they need to be protected – let the hunters hunt themselves

wpDiscuz

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