A polar bear which attacked and injured a guard who was leading tourists off a cruise ship on Norway’s Svalbard archipelago has been shot dead.
The Joint Rescue Coordination for Northern Norway tweeted that the attack occurred when tourists from the MS Bremen cruise ship landed on the most northern island of the Svalbard archipelago, a region between mainland Norway and the North Pole that is known for its remote terrain, glaciers, reindeer and polar bears.
The German Hapag Lloyd Cruises company, which operates the MS Bremen, said that two polar bear guards from their ship went on the island and one of them “was attacked by a polar bear and injured on his head”.
The polar bear was then shot dead “in an act of self-defence” by the second guard, spokeswoman Negar Etminan said.
The injured man was taken by helicopter to the town of Longyearbyen on Spitsbergen island.
“He was flown out, was responsive, and is currently undergoing medical treatment,” Etminan said, adding that the victim was not in a life-threatening condition.
She said all cruise ships travelling in the northern region are obliged to have polar bear guards on board.
Arctic tourism to the region has risen sharply in the last few years and is now in high season. A Longyearbyen port schedule shows that 18 cruise ships will be docking at the Arctic port in the next week.
The World Wildlife Fund lists polar bears as a vulnerable species and says the survival and protection of their habitat are “urgent issues.”
A backlash has been building amid news of the animal’s death, with comedian Ricky Gervais branding the cruise ship guards “morons.”
Another Twitter user asked: “So a polar bear was shot dead because it attacked a human that was encroaching on its own territory? I fucking despair.”
Wildlife conservationist Jeff Corwin told CNN: “It’s incredibly tragic. When there’s only 25,000 polar bears left on the planet, every one matters.
“When you are in this ecosystem as a tourist, as an explorer or a scientist, you have the responsibility to follow the protocols to ensure that you stay safe and that you don’t interfere with the wild behaviour of polar bears.”
Meanwhile the Norwegian authorities have defended the actions of the guards.
Police spokesman Ole Jakob Malmo said two members of the 12-man crew that set foot on the most northern island of the Svalbard archipelago ahead of tourists on Saturday first tried to ward off the bear “by shouting and making loud noises as well as firing a signal pistol, but to no effect”.
Hapag Lloyd Cruises said on its Facebook page that the purpose of the landing on Svalbard was not “to serve the purpose of polar bear observation, on the contrary: polar bears are only observed from aboard ships, from a safe distance”.
The firm said on its Twitter feed that the bear was shot “to save the life of the guard”.
The archipelago between mainland Norway and the North Pole is known for its stunning snow-covered mountains, fjords and glaciers, and is a popular cruise ship destination.
On its website, the office for the archipelago’s governor said bears may appear anywhere on Svalbard and urged people “to stay as far away as possible to avoid situations that could be dangerous for you and for the bear”.
An estimated 20,000-25,000 bears live in the Arctic.
Svalbard is dotted with warnings about polar bears. Visitors who choose to sleep outdoors receive stern warnings from authorities that people must carry firearms while moving outside of settlements.