WHEN a polar bear was shot dead in Svalbard at the end of last month, the incident sent ripples of sadness and anger around the world. Not only had we lost a member of an already endangered species – the incident, however accidental, occured as a direct result of tourism activity.

According to an official statement from the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators, the bear was killed after attacking a cruise ship’s polar bear guard, who sustained moderate injuries and was flown to hospital.

Unravelling what actually happened on the island of Phippsoya on July 28, will take months. Quite rightly, the Governor of Svalbard treats polar bear fatalities like potential murder investigations.

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Irrespective of the details, it’s extremely unlikely the shooter acted out of malice; he was, after all, defending a colleague. But a finger of blame is already being pointed at the wider industry, leading us to ask: is it really ethical for humans to enter a polar bear’s domain in the first place?

Hours after the incident was reported, celebrities and members of the public made their feelings clear on Twitter. Many, including comedian Ricky Gervais, criticised human intervention, and branded those responsible as “morons”.

In a situation such as this, extremes of emotion are understandable. In many ways, the sad scenario could be seen as yet another episode in humanity’s selfish destruction of wildlife; from the African bush to the Pacific Ocean, our activities are having a devastating impact on the natural world.

Perhaps it is naive to think we can waltz into an animal’s wild, hostile environment and expect to have it all our own way. But if conducted responsibly, tourism shouldn’t pose a threat to wildlife – conversely, it can be used as a tool to avert a species’ demise.

More than 100,000 tourists visit Svalbard every year, creating a booming industry and justifying strict regulations to safeguard the landscapes and fauna people come to see.

The National:

Most expedition cruise operators in Svalbard are members of AECO, and follow stringent guidelines to respect the environment and its inhabitants – and, for the most part, everyone plays by the rules.

Just imagine what would happen if tourism disappeared completely, leaving the door wide open for oil prospectors and trophy hunters to move in ...

I travelled to Svalbard at the beginning of the summer season, in June, and was fortunate enough to have 60 polar bear encounters – an unprecedented tally for our experienced expedition staff. All those sightings were either from the ship or a little zodiac boat; no-one intentionally goes ashore if there’s a bear.

But the high polar bear count wasn’t the only anomaly of our visit; temperatures were also much warmer than usual. Six weeks later, most of the ice in Svalbard has disappeared, leaving many bears stranded on land with very little to eat.

“I have led many expeditions to Svalbard and never seen a guide discharge a firearm,” says wildlife photographer Paul Goldstein, who led our trip. “But bears are dangerous – particularly when there is not much food around.”

While the shooting of a polar bear is undeniably tragic, there is a far bigger demon in this picture which has been overlooked.

“Polar bears are dying in far greater numbers from the lack of ice – their hunting platform – yet that story doesn’t hog the headlines in the same manner,” complains Goldstein.

Climate change is clearly evident in the Arctic – one of the fastest warming places on our planet – and its effects are already being felt in Svalbard. Judging by annual trends and new scientific reports suggesting our earth is at risk of entering a “hothouse” state, it’s only going to get worse.

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So while the Governor of Svalbard is underway with his investigation and deciding where to apportion blame for the recent shooting, perhaps we should consider how our own everyday actions are damaging vulnerable environments – from the plastic packaging filling our refrigerators, to the fuel we funnel into cars.

Because if we really want to save polar bears from needless suffering, we need to sit up and take notice. We’re all holding the trigger on that gun.