The world’s largest terrestrial carnivore, the “King of the Arctic”, is found in five countries: Russia, Canada, the United States (in the state of Alaska), Norway (in the Svalbard archipelago) and Greenland (which is a constituent country of the kingdom of Denmark). Despite Greenland’s vast size – it is the world’s largest island, at over 830,000 square miles – polar bears are not frequent sights here as they are in other parts of their range.
The IUCN estimates that there are 22-31,000 bears worldwide, with 60-80% living in Canada. In 2014, the Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) adjudged there to be insufficient data to assess whether the East Greenland subpopulation of Ursus maritimus was increasing or declining, while the other subpopulations inhabiting Greenland share territory with Canada to the west. PBSG analysis from the early 1990s estimated Greenland to contain between 3,500 and 4,400 bears.
Despite the relative scarcity of Greenland’s polar bears, it is still possible to see these iconic animals when travelling here. Seals are the main food source for polar bears, and both predator and prey spend most of their time around sea ice. Polar bears are so dependent on sea ice, in fact, and have evolved various adaptations that allow them to spend large amounts of time in Arctic waters – including a thick layer of insulating body fat and large forepaws used for swimming – that they are actually classified as marine mammals. This means that embarking on a ship-based expedition along Greenland’s coastlines will maximise your chances of making a sighting.
Polar bears have incredibly large territories – one journal article states that female polar bears have a mean home range of over 100,000 km2 - which, coupled with their reliance on shifting sea ice and ability to swim long distances, means pinpointing the exact location of these carnivores in a country as large as Greenland is a difficult task. Polar bears sometimes even appear in Iceland, despite the shortest distance from the country to Greenland being some 300 km.
During the summer months, the bears are known to hunt and breed on the pack ice of Greenland's far north, but these high latitudes are seldom visited by tourist ships. East Greenland may offer sightings, but finding a polar bear relatively far south during this time of year would be rare.
Unlike Svalbard and Arctic Canada, Greenland is not a prime location for polar bear sightings. Here they are rare, elusive, and range over an incredibly vast territory. But the mammal’s presence on Greenland’s coat of arms points to its place in the cultural traditions of the country’s residents. The indigenous Inuit peoples that live here have hunted polar bears for thousands of years, eating its meat for sustenance, using its fur and hide for clothing, and turning its bones and claws into objects imbued with spiritual significance. To the Inuit, the polar bear is the embodiment of Nanuq, the master of all bears, a deity who decides whether hunters are to be successful in their quest. If you’re lucky, you may get to meet him one day.