When David Kuptana—a 51-year-old native Inuit hunter from the remote Northwest Territories hamlet of Ulukhaktok—shot an odd-looking polar bear on April 8, he knew immediately there was something different about it. He was right. Genetic testing later confirmed what Kuptana initially suspected after he shot his bear: it was a grizzly-polar bear hybrid, only the second ever confirmed in the wild and the first second-generation hybrid (the offspring of a first-generation polar-grizzly hybrid) ever seen. Here is his story.
To outsiders this is a harsh and unforgiving landscape, but for the native peoples of the region who still largely live in accordance to this land’s unique rhythms, it is simply home. “I was born and raised here,” explains Kuptana, “and I’ve hunted polar bear all my life. I make my living as a subsistence hunter.”
Ulukhaktok is a town of 450 people located on the western coast of Victoria Island, some 310 miles north of the Arctic Circle. The town is famous for its native Inuit art, specifically print-making (the art of transferring an inked image from one surface to another). Most people who live here are native subsistence hunters, fishermen, and gatherers. The town has a local co-op which provides a grocery/general store, hotel, gas station, fuel delivery, air agency, post office, cable television network and a craft and print shop. There is also a school with grades 1-12, a Royal Canadian Mounted Police Station and regular municipal services, just like any other town.
Except, of course, for the fact that this is the view from the edge of this town…
The morning of April 8 found Kuptana cruising the sea ice west of Ulukhaktok (formerly known as Holman).
Kuptana, who shot his first polar bear at the age of nine, was hoping to find a bear somewhere along the rugged coastline. “There was a lot of open water that day,” says Kuptana, “and we weren’t seeing anything, so I told my wife maybe we should just go home.”
David’s wife Bella always goes polar bear hunting with him. She does the cooking, cleaning and fleshing of the bears. She shoots her own as well. Here’s the skull of a bear Bella recently shot.
As the Kuptanas turned and headed back for home they noticed something something unusual about one of the many hunting cabins that dotted the trail back to Ulukhaktok. “As we passed a cabin we noticed the door was open and there were bear tracks all around.” These cabins have been used by hunters and their families for decades. Most are insulated and warmed by Coleman stoves and serve as food and fuel caches during hunting trips. Since they contain food, they also sometimes attract bears.
“The bear came from the sea ice and made straight for the cabin,” says Kuptana. “He certainly wasn’t scared of anything. At the time we saw the tracks we thought it was an ordinary polar bear.” A short time later they noticed another broken-into cabin, then another, and another. “It was just going from cabin to cabin” says Kuptana.
They eventually tracked the bear to a fifth cabin. “The door wasn’t open on this one, but I saw the tracks,” says Kuptana. Suddenly, a bear appeared from behind the cabin and began running away toward town. “We chased him for awhile on the sleds,” says Kuptana. “I’ve never seen a bear run that fast.”
David on his snow machine. Native hunters are allowed to hunt from these vehicles (though they do not shoot from them while moving). Sport hunters must use a dog and sled.
Kuptana unslung his rifle – a Lee Enfield .303, and took a shot at the bear, hitting it. He worked the bolt and shot the bear again, this time stopping its run. “I got a little closer and shot it in the heart and it went down for good, “says Kuptana. “But I put three more in him just in case. My wife warned me I better not get close until I did.”
That’s when Kuptana first noticed there was something unusual about his bear. “I moved it around and I started wondering what kind of bear this was,” says Kuptana. The bear had the white body of a polar bear, but the brown legs and paws and wide head of a grizzly.
Kuptana loaded the bear onto his sled and headed for town. “It was a really fat bear, a healthy bear,” says Kuptana.
Another shot of Kuptana coming into town with his bear.
“Everybody in town came out to look at the bear and congratulate me,” says Kuptana. Polar bears are highly-prized by native and sport hunters alike, and an important food source for native hunters. David and his wife Bella usually kill one each per year, but this year due to no sport hunting they were allowed to shoot two apiece. There are 24 bear tags issued to the entire community but usually not every tag is filled every year.
The bear taped out at eight-and-a-half feet long. Knowing it was probably a hybrid, Kuptana alerted government biologists, who took DNA samples.
Testing revealed that Kuptana’s bear was a second-generation hybrid, the offspring of a female polar-grizzly hybrid and a male grizzly bear.
“I hadn’t ever seen a bear like that before,” said Kuptana, who sold the unique hide to the Northwest Territories Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment, a government agency that promotes tourism and economic development in the Northwest Territories. “But this is a new species and we’re going to be seeing more and more of them.”
The hide will be made into a unique full-body mount and returned to Ulukhaktok and put on permanent display. As for Kuptana, he says that while it was a thrill shooting such a unique bear, it’s just one in a long line of bears he’s bagged with his surplus Lee Enfield .303. “I’ve sorta lost count of how many bears I’ve shot,” he admits. “I shot my first polar bear when I was nine years old and I’ve been hunting them ever since.”