Fact Attack: Endangered Species No. 112 – The Polar Bear


Mother and cubs, Churchill, Manitoba, Canada - Courtesy of Natural Habitat Adventures

“Global warming is no longer a philosophical threat, no longer a future threat, no longer a threat at all.  It’s our reality”
Bill McKibben

Polar bear 4Global warming – Is it really a myth or an absolute reality? Is it part of the natural climatic cycle or a panic situation created by scientists, climate experts, industrialists and meteorologists; aided and abetted by self-serving politicians?

This increasingly important issue has been debated for decades – with many conflicting opinions being aired globally, especially by those with a vested interest in delaying any action to address it.  But whichever camp you have a foot in, there is no doubt the Arctic ice cap IS receding, and if we don’t do something about it soon, we WILL lose the terrifyingly beautiful polar bears forever.  Sixty to one hundred years is the predicted time left for these spectacular animals, and the world will be a lesser place without them.

Unusually, the biggest threat to the species is not hunting by humans (although this is a danger which cannot be ignored);  it is their loss of habitat that will see them driven to extinction, and human activity is indisputably the primary cause. Currently, and misguidedly in my opinion, they are listed only as vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.  These magnificent apex predators are in far deeper trouble than that.

Polar bear 12 As the ice continues to melt, there are many, ever-increasing threats to their survival, including land and water pollution, increased shipping traffic, oil and gas development, an increase in drowning and starvation, and, of course, the ubiquitous hunting parties.

Polar bears are completely dependent on the ice packs, where they hunt, breed and build their birthing dens.  But the expanses of water they now have to cover to get to them are getting far larger, and although the adult bears are accomplished swimmers, more than half of the cubs drown.  There is just too much open water. Some bears have been seen up to two hundred miles from land.  Indeed, in 2004, four adult polar bears drowned off the coast of Alaska when trying to reach the pack ice. 

Polar bear 15Mother bears are also reluctant to take young cubs into the water in the spring:  the cubs just don’t have enough fat on them to retain the heat levels needed for long periods in the water.

It conjures up a deeply sad vision of endearing little polar bears swimming after their mothers, struggling to keep up. Many destined to die of either hypothermia, hunger or exhaustion. Their adoring mothers suffering, too. Each one of them desperately trying to survive in one of the most hostile environments on the planet. 

And even more anguish and hardship appears to be coming their way.  Having just marked the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill (by no means the worst in history),  Big Oil remains unrepentant.  Notwithstanding oil still clinging to the boulders on the beaches in the Gulf of Alaska, further plans to develop offshore oil and gas in the Arctic are still being seriously considered.  As more ice melts, more potential sites are created for exploration and drilling.  Ergo, less ice means more scope.  This particular effect of global warming has not gone unnoticed by the industrial mega-giants. 

Exxon Valdez Oil SpillHowever, current research indicates even the smallest oil spill now has the potential to destroy the entire ecosystem. And how do you clean up an oil spill in floating, fragmented ice? Or any ice at all, for that matter! No-one, it seems, has yet found an effective way.

The reality is; the polar bears will die, along with the seals (their prey species), many whales and countless birds, and untold numbers of fish eggs will again be destroyed.  In fact, virtually all marine life in the area will be either affected or obliterated as well as those who feed on them.  The best estimates for casualties of the Exxon Valdez spill were: 250,000 sea-birds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbour seals, 250 bald eagles, up to 22 killer whales, and billions of salmon and herring eggs.

In short, another oil spill, or pipeline leak, would spell complete disaster for the polar bears and other wildlife.  Now is the time to close down all fossil fuel exploration in Arctic waters.  If not, it WILL be too late to save this extremely vulnerable, rapidly declining species.

Polar bear 8In order to survive extreme conditions, polar bears must regulate their own body temperature.  An oil-drenched coat would prevent this.  Their prey species will most certainly end up covered in oil, which the bears may well ingest, making them vulnerable to any contaminants, as would personal grooming.  Kidney failure and brain damage are among some of the possible after effects.  For those which haven’t already starved to death, an oil spill would most certainly take them down the same road.

Observations suggest pregnant polar bears do not react well to disturbance – something they are quite sensitive to.  Any disturbance of den sites during exploration could cause the mother to abandon the den and/or her cubs, leaving them to die of hypothermia or starvation.  With such a low population growth rate, the polar bears may never recover from these threats.

Polar bear hunting via the IndependentAnd, of course, there are many other threats, a list of which would not be considered complete without the omnipresent hunters.  Decades ago, polar bears were hunted vigorously for their pelts, paws, teeth, meat and fat.  Such hunting was largely unreported, often illegal and highly unsustainable.  This supposedly ended in 1973 when Canada, Denmark, Norway, the then USSR, and the United States of America signed an international agreement, known as the Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears .

Since then, however, four of these countries, Canada more than most (a country which so barbarically still allows the slaughter of baby seals and boasts “Canada is a proven world leader in the management, research, monitoring and conservation of polar bears”), have continued to host polar bear hunts. 

Inuit hunters via te Economist“Today”, according to Polar Bears International:  “Legal hunting in Canada continues on a limited, regulated basis for native peoples”.

Really!  Perhaps someone should pass this on to the Canadian government, who are currently charging fees for hunting and trophy licences to non-natives, to which they are adding seven per cent tax.  Export licences are also issued.   The native peoples are now cashing in on this killing spree, over and above subsistence level, and a great many non-native hunters have leapt at the opportunity.   In defiance of declining numbers, these polar bear hunts in Canada are regularly advertised for all who care to, and can afford to, kill them for fun.

Polar bear Polar Bear Hunting, one of the many profit-making businesses involved in killing polar bears, tells us,  “The actual hunt must be done in the traditional manner with an Inuvialuit Native guide and dog team”.   In my unwavering opinion, the “actual hunt” should not take place at all, but since we are travelling that route, let’s not forget the “traditional” high-powered rifles and crossbows used, without fail, on every single hunt.  Shameful!  Quite frankly, it’s hard to imagine the callous mentality of those who consider curtailing the one-and-only-lifetime of an animal to be a once-in-a-lifetime thrill for themselves.  Nevertheless they do and they need to be stopped.  This is very far removed from the native peoples’ original subsistence hunting.  This is hunting solely for pleasure and profit.

Polar bear standing on the iceWith reference to Alan Parker’s superb article – How Coke Can Save 100 Polar Bears Every Year,  “Of the five countries who signed the (Polar Bear) agreement, Canada is the only one that still allows the hunting of polar bears by anyone other than native peoples.  As such, trophy hunters from around the world flock to Canada, paying about $35,000 each (not including commercial or charter air fare) for the chance to kill a polar bear”. 

Polar bear pelts, it seems, are fetching up to twelve thousand dollars at auction in Canada, so temptation is high.  Unsurprisingly, buyers are mainly from China and the Russian Federation.

As a result, hundreds of polar bears are being killed every year where populations have been listed as either declining or data deficient.  Each sub-population has its own kill quota, and although, to reiterate, it should not be happening at all, there is no guarantee even this is being adhered to.  Norway is the only country that protects polar bears from all forms of hunting.

Polar bear 16And let’s face it, if you are tracking a polar bear, it’s a pretty big target to miss when you find it.  Male bears can weigh anything between seven hundred and twelve hundred pounds.  And, at almost nine feet tall and ten feet in length, it doesn’t take an expert marksman to fell the poor bears. In fact, polar bears are the largest of all living bears, next to the Kodiak Bear.  It seems to be debatable which bear is actually the bigger one.

Curiously, polar bears have black skin covered with thick, hollow, colourless guard hairs.  The hairs reflect the light giving the appearance of a white coat.  The bears moult in the spring, and, having devoured many seals over the winter period, their coats will have taken on a yellowish appearance.  This will be restored to the more familiar “white look” by the summer months. Polar bear 11 With this dense, water-repellent fur and their heat-retaining, four-and-a-half inch layer of fat, they can withstand extreme temperatures on land and in water.  They are also equipped with rough, anti-slip pads on their enormous paws to help them when travelling on ice.  The same huge, powerful paws act as paddles in the water.

Polar bears have always been carnivores.  Until recently that is. Ecologists, most pointedly Linda J. Gormezano of the American Museum of Natural History, have observed them changing their diet and hunting techniques to include other land-based foods.  Bird eggs and caribou seem to be their favourites.  The bears have been seen appearing during the breeding season, strolling nonchalantly up to the A lone polar bear targeting thick-billed murres and their eggsnests and helping themselves.  Other, more determined bears, have scaled cliffs to access the eggs.  Some have even been observed eating grasses and berries. 

Many more sightings on land have been reported in recent times and bears have often been known to approach human settlements.  One theory being an increase in population, with the bears merely spreading out.  The more realistic reason is the ice is melting and quite naturally bringing them closer to human-occupied land where they are now spending more time.  More polar bears on land does not indicate a population increase, more a sign of altered migration habits as the bears, facing starvation, are forced ashore through lack of ice and prey.

Polar bears are solitary creatures and tend to team up only during mating and cub rearing.  There is a gestation period of about eight months, after which the female Polar bear 7will give birth to up to four cubs – twins being the most common – each weighing about one pound and reaching a mere twelve to fourteen inches in length.  Babies are usually born in dens on snow-covered land between November and January and emerge in the spring.  It is essential the mother eats plenty of food in the summer in order to build up sufficient fat before entering the den as she will have to live off the reserves.

With polar bears maturing late, usually at four to five years, litters not being particularly large, and the first two to three years after birth being invested in parental care, the bears are unable to produce more than five litters in their lifetimes.  This, of course, means a very low reproductive rate for the species. Cubs successfully surviving the current threats could live up to twenty-five years.

Polar bear A few extra thoughts…
Polar bears are known by various other names – a lot of other names! Nanuk, Lord of the Arctic, Ice Bear, Isbjorn and Tornassuk are just a few.
The scientific name for the polar bear, Ursus maritimus, means “sea bear.”
Although primarily land dwellers, polar bears are considered marine rather than land mammals.
As fissipeds, paw or pad-footed mammals, they belong with sea otters in the Order Carnivora. Others in the family include seals and walruses.
Unlike many other bears, polar bears do not hibernate. Only pregnant females enter dens during winter.

Polar bear distribution- Map courtesy of National Geographic

Natural Habitat
The Arctic ice regions surrounding the North Pole.
Where
Canada, Alaska, Greenland, Norway and the Russian Federation.
What they eat
Seals, primarily the ringed seal, and the odd walrus or beluga whale.  They are also known to feed on the carcasses of the bowhead whale.  Research indicates polar bears are now starting to adapt to a more land-based diet as the ice continues to melt.
Threats
Climate change.  Oil and gas development and oil spills, increased shipping traffic, pollution, drowning, over-harvesting for meat and skins by locals, and hunting for sport by other parties.
Status: Vulnerable
The polar bear (Ursus maritimus) is listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as Vulnerable (at high risk of endangerment in the wild).  It is also listed on CITES Appendix II.  Polar bears are protected in the United States under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and listed under Section 4(d) of the Endangered Species Act as Threatened wherever found.  There are an estimated twenty to twenty-five thousand polar bears left in the wild.  These are split into nineteen reported sub-populations, the largest being in Canada.  There are various captive breeding programmes currently in action and polar bears can be found in zoos across the world.  Many agencies and individuals are working globally to reduce the current environmental issues which impact on the bears.

Related Articles
If oil spills in the Arctic and no one is around to clean it up, does it just stay there?
How Coke Can Save 100 Polar Bears Every Year
Polar bears, caribou first on Northwest Territories at-risk species list
Fudging threat to polar bears will see Arctic sea ice recede

48 thoughts on “Fact Attack: Endangered Species No. 112 – The Polar Bear

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  9. The photos are incredible…almost overwhelming, and then to have such a thoughtful piece, a story that while sad needs to not only be told but real solutions put into action. An incredible post Amelia.

  10. Great article. Very informative. I had a friend claim today that a polar bear will attack a human for food (he bases this on a trip driving among them in Alaska). I am just very skeptical of this. Do you have any insight?

    • Thank you, Michael. I am afraid I am with your friend on this one. Some of these polar bears are very hungry. Were they well fed, it’s my view they would not attack for the sake of it, but wild animals can be unpredictable and the survival instinct is strong in most species. So yes; I believe they will attack for food if they need it.

      Three years ago an English schoolboy was mauled to death by a polar bear in Norway. The bear was confined to land because of the lack of ice and it was believed it was starving at the time and had rampaged through their tent in search of food. Sad incident! ~ Amelia

  11. The photos accompanying this piece are stunning :-D The story, though, is tragic. When will people wake up to the fact that they are destroying this planet? Corporates are immoral in their exploits and just seem to get away with it! Thank you Amelia for this exceptional piece. All the best, Emy

  12. As with the wolf slaughter fuelled by hunter fees, greed and inhumane ways take a toll on these wonderful and defenceless creatures: “… As such, trophy hunters from around the world flock to Canada, paying about $35,000 each.” Outrageous :-( How nice it would be to have this money go, instead, to their habitat conservation.

    In the USA, the traffic of bear parts is prohibited by law. Still, Polar Bear “trophies” (a horrific designation) can be imported from Canada, allowed by the United States Marine Mammal Protection (!) Act and the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), through –of course– permits!. “Since 1994, more than 800 such trophies have been imported into the SA”. (Wikipedia). I wonder, protection?.

    The melting of their habitat is a sorrowful reality, the drowning –heartbraking. Polar Bear starts to go South and enter Grizzly’s territory and human dwellings looking for food.

    A vary fine article, Amelia. As I always say, a vegan world would decrease so much toxicity in our world and preserve so many lives, including ours.

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  14. I feel for the poor beleaguered polar bears – on assault from all sides, both natural and unnatural.

    Thanks for this article Amelia – very comprehensive. Is anyone out there still denying climate change, seriously?! :)

    • Thank you, Lee-Anne. My heart goes out to them, too. And, yes! Sadly a great many still deny it. I suspect the majority, like the oil companies, have a vested interest. Let’s hope things change before it is all too late. It would be such a terribly sad day to see the polar bears declared extinct in the wild. :)

  15. Reblogged this on Ravens-Tree.com and commented:
    Every living creature on earth is in danger from the human destruction, greed, and cruelty taking place on this planet right now. It’s epidemic proportions, and those that have the power to change it do little to nothing about it. It’s left to us to be a voice for the voiceless.

  16. Whether our climate is shifting based upon our actions or not, I feel it is still our responsibility to Act conscientiously as stewards of the future.

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