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Canadian father Aaron Gibbons ‘died a hero’, defending children from polar bear

‘He told his children to run back to the boat and put himself between his children and the bear’

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 July, 2018, 2:42pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 November, 2018, 12:52pm

A father in the northern Canadian territory of Nunavut is being hailed as a hero after he died protecting his three young children from a polar bear attack.

Aaron Gibbons, 31, was at a popular fishing and hunting spot near the hamlet of Arviat, on the western shores of Hudson Bay, on Tuesday when the bear appeared, according to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Gibbons was unarmed at the time of the attack.

He was on a small island enjoying a day out with his children, Gordy Kidlapik, Gibbons’ uncle, told the Winnipeg Free Press.

“The bear started to stalk or charge one of his children,” he said. “He told his children to run back to the boat and put himself between his children and the bear.”

His school-age children made it safely to the boat and called for help on the CB radio. Kidlapik was among those who heard the call, describing it as “heartbreaking”.

Police said Gibbons was pronounced dead at the scene. “He died a hero,” said Kidlapik.

The bear was shot and killed by other adults who were nearby.

The attack left Arviat, a small hamlet that is home to some 2,600 people, reeling. “It’s just really incredibly sad,” a local lawmaker, John Main, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). “We’re a small community and when something like this happens, it affects the whole community.”

Attacks by polar bears are rare; the last polar bear mauling in the region is believed to have happened 18 years ago in Rankin Inlet, about 200km north of Arviat.

Nunavut’s department of environment said conservation officers were investigating the circumstances of the attack to determine whether factors such as the bear’s age or health played a role in the attack.

Arviat is located within the range of the Western Hudson Bay polar bear population, which numbers around 840 bears, according to 2016 estimates.

In recent years, local hunters and elders in the community have reported a spike in sightings of polar bears around the community and noted that they seem to be less afraid of humans.

The WWF, which in 2010 partnered with Arviat to launch a programme to monitor the perimeter of the community from September to December, has linked the increase to climate change.

Sea ice is taking longer to form each autumn, meaning bears are spending more time on the coastline, Paul Crowley, director of the organisation’s arctic programme, told the CBC in 2016. “It’s partially because the climate is changing and partly because of attractants in the communities like the dumps.”

On Wednesday, Kidlapik, Gibbons’ uncle, floated his own theory, pointing to polar bear tours based in Churchill, Manitoba – about 250km south of Arviat – for acclimatising the bears to the presence of humans.

“You’ll see pictures of tourists touching a bear through the fence,” he said, while other outfitters offered walking tours near the bears.

The bears then migrated from Manitoba, where the tours are based, towards northern communities like Arviat, he claimed.

He speculated that the tours could be a factor in explaining the bears’ shifting behaviour, noting that 10 or 15 years ago, they would flee at the sound of an all-terrain vehicle or snowmobile.

“Today, bears are not doing that. They hang around. They won’t run away. They’ll go on the trail beside you,” he said. “Bears are losing whatever fear they have of humans.”

When asked about any potential link between polar bear tours and the attack, Nunavut’s department of environment declined to comment.