Ask a Bear: What’s the Deadliest Kind of Bear?
Bear attacks on humans are exceedingly rare—but they do happen.
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Q: What’s the deadliest kind of bear, and what can I do to keep myself safe from it? —Scaredy Sam
A: ROOOOAAAAR! GROAAHAHAAAOOOOWL!!! Oh, man you should have seen your face! Seriously, though, I’m not a maneater. Leave my food and my kids alone, and we’re good. And that’s the case throughout the Lower 48: Anywhere around these parts, your worst-case scenario would be to accidentally get between a grizzly mama and her cubs. Those bears can get to 600 pounds and hit like a truck with claws. If you find yourself the focus of an angry griz, use your bear spray (you packed it, right?). Failing that, curl into a ball, cover the back of your neck, and hope for the best.
As for “the deadliest bear,” it depends on how you measure. In terms of “most people killed,” that’s probably India’s sloth bear. At half the size of a grizzly, they don’t look as scary, but their territory is under intense human encroachment and that’s a recipe for conflict. More people in the woods means more people accidentally surprising them, and the stats…ahem…bear it out: Researchers estimate that sloth bears have mauled thousands of people—and killed hundreds—over the past 20 years.
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But when it comes to pure power, one bear reigns supreme. It’s the apex predator of the Arctic, the monarch of the pack ice, the big guy in the white coat: the polar bear. Where most of my family members prefer tubers, berries, salmon, and the occasional unlucky fawn, polar bears are built to kill what they eat (seals, mostly). At up to 1,300 pounds, they’re the largest terrestrial carnivore on Earth, and they aren’t afraid of anything. Me, black bears, even grizzlies—we’re pretty skittish in most situations. Polar bears will come up to your car windows like it’s a McDonald’s drive-thru and you’re the Happy Meal.
Fortunately, it’s rare for polar bears to hurt humans; their range is relatively sparsely populated, and the people who live there tend to have a healthy respect for the big guys. Communities within the bears’ range keep a lookout for them, hazing them and sometimes physically relocating them out of town. But that doesn’t change the facts: These guys are the undisputed heavyweight champions of the bear world.