German cruise operator Hapag-Lloyd Cruises is facing some heavy backlash from the public after a guard employed by the company shot and killed a polar bear on an island in the Arctic Ocean.
The incident occurred on Saturday after the MS Bremen stopped off the island of Spitsbergen, in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard.
A group of "polar bear guards" from the ship went on land ahead of the tourists to make sure none of the animals were in the area. One of the guards was "unexpectedly attacked" by a polar bear, which was shot dead by another guard in an act of self-defense, Hapag-Lloyd Cruises said in a statement on Monday.
The company claims that the animal was only shot once it became apparent the attacked guard's life was in danger and that the animal would not leave the scene.
The Joint Rescue Coordination for northern Norway confirmed in a tweet on Saturday that the animal had been shot and killed.
"We very much regret this incident,"the cruise line said. "Hapag-Lloyd Cruises is very aware of its responsibility when traveling in environmentally-sensitive areas and respects all nature and wildlife."
According to the Hamburg-based firm, its guard suffered head injuries from his encounter with the animal and was airlifted out to receive medical attention. His condition is stable and he "remains responsive."
In a phone call with the New York Times, Moritz Krause, spokesman for Hapag-Llyod Cruises, said that usually, if a wild bear is seen, guards “shoot into the air” to scare the animal away. But he said the injured guard did not see the polar bear before it attacked.
There are apparently 3,500 polar bears found in the Svalbard area, which forms the Arctic Ocean cluster the Spitsbergen island resides in. With a worldwide population of no more than 31,000, polar bears are among the most endangered species in the world. Public attention has recently increased to the plight polar bears face as their living conditions have changed drastically due to climate change.
Even so, the dangers of encountering polar bears are well known to those traveling in the area.
According to the Governor of Svalbard's website, "Due to the polar bear danger in Svalbard, any person traveling outside the settlements shall be equipped with appropriate means of frightening and chasing off polar bears. We also recommend carrying firearms outside the settlements."
On the Norwegian Polar Institute website, the Cruise Handbook for Svalbard states, "Due to the risk of meeting polar bears visitors travelling in Svalbard must always have firearms and protection devices at hand, such as a big-game rifle and ammunition for self-defence, flare gun or an emergency signal flare pen for driving off polar bears and tripwire with flares for camping."
Despite these warnings, some people expressed anger on social media that a cruise ship company leading tourists on an exploration of an animal's natural habitat led to the death of an animal that is among the world's most endangered species.
Why don’t you say you are very sad you killed a polar bear in its natural habitat and stop intruding in their home lands with tourists @HapagLloydAG ? OR maybe we can place a polar bear in your corporate offices so you can see how it is to them? #polarbear #hapaglloydcruises— Rob (@Unpersuaded112) July 29, 2018
If the face of withering criticism appearing on public forums, Hapag-Llyod Cruises closed its statement with an apology:
"Hapag-Lloyd Cruises has been traveling to these destinations for many years with an experienced crew. The cruise operator is respected in the destinations as a responsible partner and the experts actively inform the guests about the appropriate behavior required in these areas. We are extremely sorry that this incident has happened."
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