On Thin Ice: Greenland's Last Inuit Polar Bear Hunters

On thin ice: Greenland's last Inuit polar bear hunters

Ittoqqortoormiit, (APP - UrduPoint / Pakistan Point News - 19th Jun, 2024) Inuit hunter Hjelmer Hammeken spotted a ringed seal near its breathing hole on the Greenland ice. In his white camouflage, he slowly crept towards it then lay down in the snow and waited.

When the right moment came, Hammeken tapped his feet together. The seal lifted its head to look where the noise was coming from and the hunter fired.

He butchered the animal there and then, eating some of its liver while it was still warm, as his ancestors have done for centuries -- the hunter's reward.

Such scenes are common around the hugely isolated Inuit community of Ittoqqortoormiit, close to Scoresby Sound, the world's biggest fjord on the frozen east coast of Greenland.

All the men hunt in this colourful little settlement of 350 souls.

While only the professionals track polar bears, everyone hunts seats, narwhals and Arctic musk ox.

But for the last two decades climate change and hunting quotas have been threatening the livelihood on which Inuit families have long survived.

Hammeken is a legend in Greenland, its greatest polar bear hunter.

AFP followed him and other professional Inuit hunters for several days during the hunting season.

He killed seven this year to add to his tally of 319 over the last half century.

When he arrives at the edge of the ice, where it meets the Arctic Ocean, he commands respect.

Hammeken made his reputation in the 1980s. He would go out alone for several weeks at a time, crossing the glaciers of the fjord with his dogs with little more than a tent to bring back up to three polar bears.

It was the golden age for the hunters, when polar bear skins could be sold abroad.

That ended in 2005 when quotas were put in place to slow the fall in polar bear numbers. This year's quota of 35 had been hit by the end of April, which was why Hammeken was hunting seals, on which there is no quota.

Climate change has turned the lives of the Inuit upside down since the beginning of the century -- with the Arctic warming four times faster than the global average.

"Before we could hunt all year," said Hammeken, 66. "In winter the ice was harder... and the fjord never melted."

But now the ice is retreating and the Sound is open and navigable between mid-July and mid-September.

With the young hunter Martin Madsen at his side, Hammeken scanned the horizon. The wind had come up and the sea with it.

It was time to go. The ice, which is thin at the edge of the sheet, had become unstable, and risked breaking up and taking him and his protege with it.

"In August, all the ice sheet will have melted. There will be just the sea, a rough sea," which will make hunting seals and narwhals -- which are also subject to a quota -- difficult, Hammeken said.

With little ice on which to hunt seals, he wondered how the polar bears would survive. Stuck on land and starving now in the summers, they are coming closer and closer to the village looking for food.