Sunday, November 2, 2008

1) I'm wondering what sort of people take the trips on the buggies -- what draws them to Churchill for this experience -- and what sort of training or orientation are they given to keep a respectful distance from the bears?

I was surprised by the variety of people who took trips to Churchill! Many of the guests were not from North America; a lot of folks were from the United Kingdom, Australia, or New Zealand. That being said, all of the guests had one thing in common: They love polar bears! Many people were there because they believed it would be their last chance to see polar bears in the wild.

Many were also very interested the other wildlife around Churchill. We saw a number of snowy owls perched on rocks in the tidal flats, ptarmigan (which is an Arctic member or the grouse family) and both red and arctic foxes. Some buggies even got to see caribou (I was not so lucky).

In addition to being nature lovers, a significant number of photographers joined us on board the buggies.

In reference to your question about any training, before a group goes out on the tundra, the drivers give an introduction to the day and discuss the buggy rules and the importance of respect for the animals. In Manitoba it is illegal to harass, bait, or feed polar bears, and this law is taken very seriously by the citizens and tour companies. Drivers explain that there is no food or drink allowed on the back deck; anyone caught feeding or baiting a bear will be picked up from the buggy by a helicopter, at their cost, and flown back to town. They will also be fined or could serve jail time. In a situation where the person is not able to be identified, the entire buggy and all on board will return to launch. In my expereince, guests always understood the importance of this law and no one ever tried to sneak the bears food.

In addition, the drivers are trained to pay attention to the body language of the animals as we approach them in the buggies. They emphasize that we are traveling in the bears’ territory. If a driver senses a bear is uncomfortable with the buggy's presence, they will respect that animal by not approaching them or leaving the area. As an animal trainer, I was very impressed by how well the drivers and tour guides know the animals!

Polar Bears International (PBI) was also able to fund a research project to evaluate the effect of ecotourism on the bears. The results identified various ways tundra vehicles could approach bears to minimize a response from them. The research also helped to understand precursor behaviors bears display that indicate a potential negative response to the buggies.

2) Now that you're back, if you what do you wish you would have known before you went on this trip that would have made it a better experience for you?

I wish I would have had a better camera! My point and shoot digital did not do justice to the bears or the scenery. But other than that, I felt very well prepared. Prior to my trip, I was given hundreds of pages of information by PBI to read and learn. In addition, working with our polar bears at Como Zoo and answering visitors' questions was a lot of help in preparing me for what I encountered in Churchill.

Thanks again for your questions!

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