Polar Bears in the Alps – Our Branch in Tyrol
Not many of our over 275.000 members might know that some of the perhaps most devoted and active ones are to be found over 2750 km as the crow flies from Hammerfest inmidst of the Alps. They form our subsidiary branch, the Polar Bear Society Vinschgau, established shortly after its founding members had visited the headquarters in Hammerfest in 2002. Today it counts 48 members and can look back on a variety of activities over the years, ranging from legendary annual meetings, polar bear and climate activism, as well multiple visits to Hammerfest. All of this led to a book in 2018 with the title “Eisbären in Tirol” (“Polar Bears in Tyrol”). Last week, just as the publication was selected as the “Tyrolensie of the month” for July 2020 by the university library in Innsbruck, lifetime president and founding father Dr Martin Trafoier took time to speak to us from his home about its lively history as well as recent developments.
“Vinschgau is a region in Western South Tyrol, surrounded by mountains up to 4000 m high, and close to the Swiss and Austrian borders”, he began. A look at a map suggests closeness to what has been an early epicentre of the pandemic this year, but, as President Trafoier explains, the region was fortunately widely spared with 16 cases among the about 30.000 inhabitants in the valley. A number that also coincides with the one in Hammerfest. But it is not only the relative isolation that connects the two places otherwise so far-apart. “Just as Hammerfest is located in the North of Norway, Vinschgau is located in the North of Italy and differs from the rest of the country, especially South Tyrol where 2/3 of the population are German-speaking. And as remote mountain dwellers we have some peculiarities, probably like the people of Hammerfest.” It is then perhaps less surprising that the polar bear symbolizing survival in the Arctic with its willpower, strength and creativity resonated so strongly in Vinschgau.
“Since it is rather difficult for an inhabitant of the Alps to make it to Hammerfest every third Sunday in January, we decided to establish a subsidiary branch in Vinschgau.”
But, let’s start at the beginning. In 2002 Trafoier and two of his students at the Realgymnasium Schlanders visited Hammerfest for the first time as part of a EU Comenius project. “I was overwhelmed by Northern Norway”, he remembers, “We arrived there in May, two days before May 17th [the Norwegian national holiday]. We then participated in the parade with our blue Tyrolean aprons. The fact that it never became dark… When one hears about it and when one then actually experiences it - these are two completely different things. Our biorhythms were totally messed up. We felt as awake at 2am as at 4pm and after a while one falls asleep even at 3pm...”. It was only natural that one thing every visit to Hammerfest should include would be accomplished: the three pioneers from South Tyrol became life-time members of The Royal and Ancient Polar Bear Society. But as every member is well aware of, the annual members’ meeting poses a challenge: “Since it is rather difficult for an inhabitant of the Alps to make it to Hammerfest every third Sunday in January, we decided to establish a subsidiary branch in Vinschgau.”
Officially inaugurated on the third Sunday of January 2003 in a tavern in Burgeis, Vinschgau, The Polar Bear Society Vinschgau comprised three founding members: Martin Trafoier, Martin Pobitzer and Andreas Platter. A phenomenon that we also experience in Hammerfest, appeared quickly in South Tyrol: not everyone showed up. “It was a wonderful day: blue skies, sun, snow. One of the students went on a skiing tour in the mountains. So it was only me and the other student and a representative of the press whom we had invited. We took a stuffed polar bear to take the place of the absent member and carried out the meeting as supposed. The waitress was rather puzzled by what was going on. I was elected unanimously as president and the second student [Martin Pobitzer] as vice president. The journalist then took a photo of us at the frozen fountain outside and so it started off.”
In the meantime, after a couple more school exchanges and visits to Hammerfest, The Polar Bear Society Vinschgau counts 48 members. In order to join, it is obligatory to become member in Hammerfest first and this is of course only possible by personally visiting the northernmost town in the world. “When one has been to Hammerfest, then one needs to notify me and at the next annual meeting one is admitted to the Polar Bear Society Vinschgau. It is not as elaborate as the ennoblement ceremony [in Hammerfest] with a walrus penis. The first task for the new member is then to give an account of their stay in Hammerfest.” Even the mayor of Schlanders and his wife have become members and the youngest one is Katja Trafoier, the president’s niece, who did an internship at the headquarters in the Arctic in 2019. The subsidiary in Tyrol does not have an office of its own and annual meetings take place at different establishments in Vinschgau, but it does run a Facebook page and Trafoier’s own address is used for postal correspondence when needed.
Their activities go beyond organizing annual meetings, however. “Because the Polar Bear Society in Hammerfest is concerned with life in the Arctic and Arctic expeditions, we thought we could dedicate ourselves to the conservation of polar bears.” While they first advocated protection of polar bears in the Alps and the Mediterranean, it soon took a more serious turn. “The idea came up when we read in the newspaper that tourists would be able to take part in shooting polar bears from helicopters in Greenland… We then wrote a letter to the Danish Queen.” Many more letters and petitions would follow and were sent to the powerful over the years. Even before it had received much media attention, they identified climate change as the main threat for the survival of polar bears. Addressees included German chancellor Angela Merkel, US presidents George W. Bush, Obama and Trump, the British and French prime ministers, Pope Benedict as well as politicians in Brazil, China and Russia and the UN. The most recent one was sent to Ursula Von der Leyen this year.
“Because the Polar Bear Society in Hammerfest is concerned with life in the Arctic and Arctic expeditions, we thought we could dedicate ourselves to the conservation of polar bears.”
“Last week we received the answer from the EU commission, listing EU measures to reach climate neutrality”, Trafoier informs, “I mean, the EU and the UN are making some efforts, but reaching the goals has been postponed to 2050. When we started with climate activism it was always said 2030. We wrote that it would be important to also agree on short-term climate targets. What do we want to reach by 2020, 2021 or 2022? So the people who sign would feel personally responsible… In 2050, a next generation of politicians might then postpone them to 2070. Or it will become so dramatic that similar strict measures as during the corona pandemic would need to be implemented that turn people’s lives upside down.”
Besides the meeting in January and their political advocacy, the members of the Polar Bear Society Vinschgau also meet a second time in the year, usually in May, “since this was when we first went to Hammerfest.” On this occasion the focus is not so much on procedural acts or strategical planning, but about hands-on action. Picks and spades are taken out in order to plant trees as part of local reforestation projects in coordination with the forest authorities. “As trees absorb CO2, this is our little contribution to the protection of the climate ” This year, however, it had to be cancelled due to the lockdown, but “we will perhaps meet in August to check how the trees we have planted so far are doing.”
Elections are a requirement, these, however, do not necessarily have to be democratic.
After his long and uninterrupted reign since its foundation in 2003, President Trafoier is still full of enthusiasm and appears to continue to have a firm grip on power. There have been occasional attempts by some members to undermine his presidency, he admits, but, the elections so far have unequivocally confirmed him in his position. Arguing that for a “royal” society, the tedious process of elections could be done away with, he once turned to our head office in Hammerfest to resolve the issue. The response: Elections are a requirement, these, however, do not necessarily have to be democratic. As a result, ballot papers were designed that allowed three answers to the question “Do you want to confirm Martin Trafoier as president of The Polar Bear Society Vinschgau? - (1) Yes (2) Yes, of course (3) Who else?”. Another time, voters were asked to draw alternative candidates, if they wished, in a recognizable fashion - they failed miserably. So, once and again, Trafoier has turned out as the winning candidate, even if only because opposing votes are routinely invalidated. Since the restructuring of The Polar Bear Society in Hammerfest, - it is now led by the manager of Hammerfest Turist - Trafoier can even proudly claim the title of the only elected president of the Polar Bear Society globally. In 2013, at the annual meeting in Hammerfest, which he and 10 other members from Vinschgau attended, he was “elected president by acclamation.”
“The office is an honorary one and an important title”, he explains, and the few expenses of the Polar Bear Society Vinschgau are covered by the president. “People always ask if they can make donations… In our opinion you cannot help polar bears with money… If the climate targets to reduce CO2 emissions are not met, then money is of no use. We cannot eat money.” The maximum annual donation that can be made are €2 and only coins are accepted. All donors are then read out aloud at the annual meeting. “Our main donors are members of the Polar Bear Society Vinschgau”, he points out. Since 2003, around €700 accumulated in this manner and so far only once it was tapped into to support a national charity. “Maybe there will be another occasion where the money can be used.”
In our opinion you cannot help polar bears with money… If the climate targets to reduce CO2 emissions are not met, then money is of no use.
Due to the growing concern with climate change, The Polar Bear Society Vinschgau has increasingly come into the spotlight and appeared on local TV, radio and, most recently, their 2018 book “Eisbären in Tirol”, was chosen as the Tirolean publication of the month July 2020 by the university library Innsbruck. In this beautifully illustrated book one can learn more about anecdotes in the course of its history, their experiences in Hammerfest and of course polar bears. Sadly, we did not have the honour to welcome president Trafoier and his delegation from South Tyrol personally in Hammerfest this year, as their planned visit in May had to be cancelled due to the lockdown, but we look forward to receiving them in the northernmost town in 2021. This will hopefully also mean an increase of dedicated members for the Polar Bear Society Vinschgau and presumably more loyal voters for the president.
Get in touch with The Polar Bear Society Vinschgau on: https://www.facebook.com/Polarbearsociety-Vinschgau-106290892847/
“Eisbären in Tirol” (2018), edited by Martin Trafoier and published by Bibliothek der Provinz GmbH, ISBN 9783990287989. In German. Some copies available at The Polar Bear Society in Hammerfest.