Crimson on White: Hunting the Polar Bear

PANGNIRTUNG, CANADA - NOVEMBER 14 During a hunting trip, Paul Ishlutak, 12, stays warm in the underside of a boat in Pangnirtung, Canada on Nov. 14, 2013. He and his brother Damien tag along with their father, who teaches them how to hunt. With so many children to feed and support, his father Levi often struggles to put food on the table, living day to day, and pay check to pay check. As communities in Nunavut are completely cut off from the rest of Canada by road, food and supplies are shipped at an extremely high cost by boat and plane, leading to exorbitant prices at the grocery stores. The Inuit have traditionally depended on hunting to provide food, shelter, and warmth for their families in the harsh arctic environment. Hunting provides much-needed sustenance for families. However, environmental groups often criticize the Inuit for hunting species claimed to have dwindling populations such as narwhal, belugas, seals, and polar bears. The current debate highlights the clash between traditional hunting practices and modern conservation science. (Ed Ou/Reportage by Getty Images)***EDITORS NOTE***The photographer contributed money for food, equipment, and gas for the hunting trip, as his presence took up the limited space and supplies on the boat.
Ed Ou—Reportage by Getty Images
Pangnirtung, Canada, Nov. 14, 2014. During a hunting trip, Paul Ishlutak, 12, stays warm in the underside of a boat. He and his brother Damien tag along with their father, who teaches them how to hunt. With so many children to feed and support, his father Levi often struggles to put food on the table.

Ed Ou spent four months in 2013 photographing Inuit communities in Nunavut, the northernmost territory of Canada. Here, many are cut off from the rest of the country — and food and supplies are brought in at an extremely high cost by land and sea. Because of this, the Inuit often depend on hunting for food. Environmental groups regularly criticize them for hunting species claimed to have dwindling populations such as narwhal, belugas, seals, and polar bears. In the U.S., Washington has pushed for a global ban on the commercial trade of polar bear fur, meat, and body parts. But the Canadian government opposes this on behalf of the Inuit. 

Editor’s note: Given the isolation of the communities in the north of Canada, Ou helped offset the high costs of embedding himself with the Inuit community and contributed money for gas, groceries, heating, internet, and other expenses.

Ed Ou’s pictures are hard to look at. A polar bear emerges from the water, drenched in blood, turning its white fur crimson. Then the dead bear sprawled on the rocks, legs spread and jaw open, as if it was simply caught by surprise, even while the hunters begin the process of butchering the carcass. Finally the bears pelt, cleansed of the blood, drying in a bathtub.

Polar bears have become the living symbols of climate change, with reason—as the planet warms, the sea ice that the bears use as hunting platforms is melting, putting the animals at risk. The idea of hunting and killing an animal that is listed as an endangered species, one that’s already under pressure from climate change, seems wrong on its face, like crimson blood on white fur.

But look closer at those pictures. Ou, a Canadian native, traveled the Inuit homeland of Nunavut in the far north not to document a polar bear hunt, but to explore a part of his own country that had always seemed foreign. In remote towns like Pangnirtung and Iqaluit, Ou found a culture grappling with extreme poverty, substance abuse and a legacy of mistreatment from the Canadian government, which for decades all but stole Inuit children from their parents, sending them to residential schools where they were forbidden to speak their own language or practice their own culture. The last residential schools were only shut down in 1996, but the effects are still being felt among the Canadian Inuit Ou came to document, compounded by the extreme isolation of the Arctic and the painful transition from a traditional subsistence hunting culture to a sedentary way of life. “Trauma has been passed down from one generation to the next,” says Ou. “Alcoholism is high, drug abuse is high, suicide rates are high. It’s a very traumatized place.”

In his photos, Ou shows Inuit like Kelly Amaujaq Fraser, a young woman was sexually abused repeatedly as a young girl, and whose father killed himself when she was just a teenager. He shows a near-empty refrigerator, the product of a place where unemployment is in the double digits, and where a simple carton of milk can cost more than $10. Given those bleak conditions, it’s not surprising that the Inuit would hunt polar bears, as their ancestors did before them—albeit not with high-powered rifles. A single polar bear pelt can fetch more than $10,000 on the open market, and the meat can feed dozens of hungry people. As distasteful as the sight of a butchered polar bear might be to outsiders, to the Inuit, it’s a matter of survival—and of culture. “They feel their ability to hunt is one of their last sources of subsistence,” says Ou. “Before you judge them, you have to understand the socioeconomic factors driving this.”

That doesn’t mean it’s right to allow polar bear hunts to continue. It’s unclear just how many polar bears are left, and the continued effects of climate change will almost certainly drive the species closer to extinction if nothing is done to save them. But it doesn’t seem that burden should fall on the Inuit, who’ve already paid such a high price. “They ask, ‘why do we have to pay the highest price for global warming when we contribute the least?’,” says Ou. Justice is something else that’s endangered in the Arctic.

Ed Ou is a photographer with Reportage by Getty Images


Related Topics: , , , , , ,

Latest Posts

Mg Ko, 20 years old. A Shan farmer with his cow in Lui Pan Sone Village. Kayah State.

Transforming Lives in Burma, One Solar Panel at a Time

In Burma, where only a quarter of the population has access to electricity, solar panels can change lives, as Spanish photographer Ruben Salgado Escudero found out

Read More
Diana Walker—Contour by Getty Images for TIME

An Intimate Portrait of Hillary Clinton in Photographs

LOVED ONE LOST:NAME: Jabril BradleyAGE: 20DOB: 10/6/1990SEX: MaleDATE OF DEATH: 9/1/2011TIME: After MidnightLOCATION: 9th st and Ave of the States, Chester, PACIRCUMSTANCES LEADING UP TO MURDER: Bradley was riding his bike home from a friend’s house on the east side of Chester, September 1, 2011, when an unknown gunman opened fire. He was struck in the back once and continued to ride his bike home. A number of blocks later he collapsed to the ground from blood loss. He bled to death on the street. Bradley’s family claim that he was shot because of mistaken identity. According to his mother, Bradley was supposed to still be in prison. He was serving a sentence for possession of a controlled substance and was allegedly released before his time was up. Within weeks of his murder, the FBI came looking for Bradley at his mothers house, claiming that he got released by mistake. IN PHOTOGRAPH:NAME OF FAMILY MEMBERS: Sister to Jabril Bradley: Danita Harris, 30.Son to Danita Harris: Jah’lil Harris, 3.

Photojournalism Daily: Oct. 23, 2014


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 17,622 other followers