The migration of the planet's 25,000 remaining polar bears has been disrupted by global warming, putting the animals in more contact with humans than ever before — an unfortunate reality for both bears and people. A new six-part docu-series, "Polar Bear Town" from the Smithsonian Channel, beginning November 16, looks at the impact of this trend on the northern Canada town of Churchill, Manitoba. Deemed the “polar bear capital of the world,” over 1,000 hungry polar bears pass through Churchill in October and November, waiting for the sea ice to freeze so they can hunt.
In this exclusive clip, we watch as a gaunt male polar bear tracks a mother bear and two babies in an effort to eat the cubs. They quickly flee, and the male polar bear gives up, lacking the energy to chase them. But his hungry desperation indicates why locals in the town of Churchill fear the 10-foot tall, 1000-pound predators.
Last year, a woman in Churchill was seriously injured in a polar bear attack, and the residents remain terrified. As Men’s Journal reported in the feature “Siege of the Polar Bears,” residents in the nearby town of Arviat don’t feel safe leaving their homes at night. Peter Alareak, a tribal elder, told MJ, “A decade or so ago, there were only a few months a year when you saw bears. Now there are only a few months a year when you don't see them. You never know where they're going to pop up. You might be inside and want to go out for a smoke, and next thing you know, the bear is right there."
Polar Bear Town also explores how, despite the danger, every year as many as 10,000 tourists fly to Churchill — population 800 — to get a glimpse of the cuddly seeming predators. The visitors take tundra-buggies, special all-terrain vehicles, and guides say they try to show the animals in their natural habitats, while driving home the impacts of global warming. John Gunter, the president and CEO of Frontiers North Adventures, told MJ, "What we do, at the most basic level, is broker safe interactions between polar bears and humans. And once you lock your gaze with a wild polar bear, it's hard not to become invested in their existence."
Scientists in Churchill are trying to balance human safety with polar bear survival, and the show explores the novel measures Churchill has taken, like what locals call, “polar bear jail,” where wildlife officials hold the animals in pens and then, in some cases, airlift them out of the area. And viewers watch, as biologists, photographers, and explorers track and monitor the bears in maternity dens outside of Churchill, and as female bears try to ensure the survival of their cubs.
Polar Bear Town premieres on the Smithsonian Channel on Wednesday November 16th at 8 p.m. ET/PT.