National Geographic

Black Bears That Are Actually ... White?

In a forest dominated by second-growth trees, a young bear settles into a mossy day bed at the foot of a giant, old-growth western red cedar. i i

In a forest dominated by second-growth trees, a young bear settles into a mossy day bed at the foot of a giant, old-growth western red cedar. Paul Nicklen/National Geographic hide caption

itoggle caption Paul Nicklen/National Geographic
In a forest dominated by second-growth trees, a young bear settles into a mossy day bed at the foot of a giant, old-growth western red cedar.

In a forest dominated by second-growth trees, a young bear settles into a mossy day bed at the foot of a giant, old-growth western red cedar.

Paul Nicklen/National Geographic

It's just as weird and magical as it sounds. That the local people on the northwest coast of British Columbia refer to these creatures as "spirit bears" makes them all the more elusive: There are an estimated 1,000 in existence, but photographer Paul Nicklen caught an intimate glimpse of the spirit bear (also known as the Kermode bear) for National Geographic's August issue.

  • With a population of 400 to as many as 1,000, the spirit bear may owe its survival to the protective traditions of the First Nations, who never hunted the animals or spoke of them to fur trappers.
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    With a population of 400 to as many as 1,000, the spirit bear may owe its survival to the protective traditions of the First Nations, who never hunted the animals or spoke of them to fur trappers.
    Paul Nicklen/National Geographic
  • In a moss-draped rain forest in British Columbia, towering red cedars live a thousand years, and black bears are born with white fur.
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    In a moss-draped rain forest in British Columbia, towering red cedars live a thousand years, and black bears are born with white fur.
    Paul Nicklen/National Geographic
  • An aerial view shows Canada's Great Bear Rainforest.
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    An aerial view shows Canada's Great Bear Rainforest.
    Paul Nicklen/National Geographic
  • With a pink salmon in its jaws, a 5-year-old male retreats into the forest before slitting open the fish's belly and eating only the eggs. Other bears may consume everything, from head to tail.
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    With a pink salmon in its jaws, a 5-year-old male retreats into the forest before slitting open the fish's belly and eating only the eggs. Other bears may consume everything, from head to tail.
    Paul Nicklen/National Geographic
  • This rare mother Kermode bear climbed a tree to feast on a bumper crop of crab apples in Canada's Great Bear Rainforest.
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    This rare mother Kermode bear climbed a tree to feast on a bumper crop of crab apples in Canada's Great Bear Rainforest.
    Paul Nicklen/National Geographic

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"Neither albino nor polar bear," the article explains, "the spirit bear ... is a white variant of the North American black bear, and it's found almost exclusively here in the Great Bear Rainforest." It is something of a best-kept secret among Canadian First Nations and American Indians of the area, and perhaps that's why it still exists.

But a proposed oil pipeline that would run through the area has locals on edge. This is a small selection of Nicklen's work; more on spirit bears and the oil debate are at National Geographic.

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