The Svalbard archipelago is a wildlife-rich area with seals highly concentrated along the edge of drifting ice in summer and on fjord ice in spring. Polar bears in this area are part of the Barents Sea (BS) subpopulation. Shared between Svalbard and Russia, the Barents Sea area ranges west toward Greenland and east toward Franz Josef Land, the Kara Sea and Novaya Zemlya in Russia.

No indigenous people live in the Svalbard archipelago. Human activity there began in 1611 with the slaughtering of whales, walrus and seals; later, Russian and then Norwegian land-based trappers in the area hunted seals, polar bears, arctic foxes and anything else of value. Svalbard became a place for earning fast money but not without very high risk. From the 1800s onward, Svalbard also became a popular destination for Arctic expeditions and research.

Copyright: Polar Bears & Humans project / Ole J LioddenPolar bear hunting statistics for hunting groups in Svalbard, 1907-60. Numbers include killed and captured bears. See the Polar Bears & Humans book for source references and more details.

Copyright: Polar Bears & Humans project / Ole J LioddenPolar bear hunting statistics for hunting groups in Svalbard, 1961-1973. From 1974-2016 the ‘Total’ category represents ‘problem-bear’ kills in Svalbard. See the Polar Bears & Humans book for source references and more details.

Polar bear trappers
The first Russian trappers came to Svalbard around 1715, but the first Russian hut was documented in 1743. Russian trappers built trapping stations all over the archipelago, usually as single cabins operating both in summer and winter. There are no polar bear hunting statistics from the period of Russian activity on Svalbard, but it must have been profitable, considering it lasted for more than 100 years, until 1853.

The Russian exit was followed by Norwegian trappers who overwintered for the first time on Svalbard in 1795. These trappers were similarly motivated by profit and they aimed to kill as many polar bears, arctic foxes and seals as possible. Trappers usually had a contract for one winter season and then went home during the short summer to sell hides and prepare for a new winter season. Most trappers came from northern parts of Norway with strong hunting traditions; others signed up for Svalbard to earn money or seek new adventures. Some of the young, inexperienced trappers did not survive the extreme conditions of the Arctic.

Detailed polar bear hunting statistics for Svalbard became available starting in 1871. From 1889–1906 trappers killed a total of 469 polar bears. Increasing their activity over the next five years, they killed 1,293 polar bears, as the figures above shows. The peak season was in 1909, when land-based trappers – aided by the invention of automated set guns – officially killed or captured 512 polar bears, though the actual number was higher. The first and only attempt to overwinter at Kong Karls Land in 1909 ended in disaster – the group of six trappers barely survived. But back on the island they had left 84 polar bear skins and killed 21 captive polar bear cubs. Those 105 killed polar bears were not included in the official hunting statistics.

In the season of 1936–37, two trappers set a so-called ‘unbreakable’ record on Svalbard by killing 115 polar bears. For some trappers this record became perhaps an even stronger motivation than money, and especially those trappers in the best polar bear areas invested a lot of effort to surpass it. Two years after the Second World War, one hunting party broke the record by killing or capturing 138 polar bears in 1946–47, and a later party killed or captured 142 bears in 1969–70. Some of the areas in the eastern parts of Svalbard – with names like ‘Fortress’ – were like war zones for polar bears. Today, most people find it difficult to understand the motivation for such slaughter and the lack of empathy for wildlife.

Polar bear hunting by sealers
The first sealing vessels from Norway sailed north in 1821, and sealing activity increased over the next hundred years. In 1924, 154 different sealing vessels killed a total of 301,300 seals, mainly harp seals. The huge number of seal carcasses attracted polar bears, including females with cubs, and the sealers usually shot them for their skins.

In the first period of record, from 1871–93, sealers killed 3,256 polar bears, whereas trappers killed seven. Polar bear hunting activity by sealers more than doubled over the next 40 years and peaked with 733 polar bears killed in 1924 and 662 killed in 1919, as the figures illustrates above. Before the 1973 Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears, sealers had killed or captured a total of 22,018 polar bears in the Svalbard area.

In addition to the adult polar bears they killed, sealers brought back many live cubs to Norway and sold them. After the mother was killed, the cub would stay close to her, and not run away. The sealers held the cubs captive in small cages on the sealing vessels and fed them seal blubber or meat. They sold many of the polar bear cubs to zoos in Hamburg, London or other European cities. Some cubs also ended up in circuses and theatres around the world. The payment for live cubs was many times better than the price of a dead bear’s skin, and 1,683 polar bear cubs from Svalbard were officially sold from 1871–1973. Sealers were responsible for capturing 94.4% of those cubs. In 1957 new regulations limited the capture of living polar bears and far fewer cubs were captured over the following 16 years.

Sealers killed polar bears mainly for their fur, but their summer coats did not have the same high quality as their winter coats. The difference was reflected in the skin price: nearly 400 summer polar bear skins were sold in 1937 for only ten Norwegian kroner each – equal to USD $35 in today’s market. The life of a polar bear had almost no value in those years, and nobody thought about the consequences of such high hunting pressure. From the late 1950s onward, polar bear hunting by sealers decreased, but activity by trappers, trophy hunters and workers at weather stations increased.

Overall polar bear hunting
From 1871–1973 hunters killed or captured a total of 30,294 polar bears throughout Svalbard: sealers took 22,018, trappers took 6,051, weather station workers took 1,459 and trophy hunters took 766 bears. On average they killed or captured 294 polar bears annually, with peaks of 901 bears in 1924 and 888 bears in 1907. The estimated population size and growth rate from the early 1970s suggest that the annual hunting activity was three times higher than what the population could sustain.

Overall polar bear hunting activity in Svalbard was very high compared with other areas of the Arctic, especially considering Svalbard’s limited area. In only the five years from 1922–26, Svalbard hunters killed more than 2,500 polar bears – similar to the current size of the entire Barents Sea polar bear subpopulation. Sealers hunting in the drifting ice to the west toward Greenland and to the east toward Russia, killed most of the polar bears around Svalbard. Hunting statistics from 1945–65 show that sealers killed 3,426 polar bears: 2,970 in Svalbard waters and 197 in the Jan Mayen area, another part of Norwegian territory. In all, polar bears killed in East Greenland, Newfoundland or in Russian territory comprised only 7.7% of the polar bear skins that sealers traded in Norway.

After the Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears went into effect in 1973, all hunting ceased and the Norwegian government enforced the new regulations seriously. They investigated all reports of polar bears killed in self-defence and enforced a penalty of up to one year in prison for breaking the new laws. From 1974–2018, people shot a total of 133 polar bears – 3.0 per year on average – reportedly in ‘self-defence’ or as ‘acts of mercy’. Amazingly, the annual average in this 45-year period yielded 99.0% fewer polar bear kills than the hundred years leading up to the hunting ban. In only a few years Svalbard had changed dramatically from a war zone to a polar bear paradise.

Learn more about polar bears
The information on this webpage is from Chapter 2.4 in the Polar Bears & Humans book. If you want to learn more about polar bears and conservation, order a copy of the book, and support the Polar Bears & Humans project.