Rider of Icebergs, The Ice Bear, The Seal’s Dread. These are all names used to refer to Ursus maritimus, or more commonly known as the polar bear. Perfectly adapted to a life of extreme weather conditions in one of the world’s most challenging environments, the polar bear is thought to share a last common ancestor with the brown bear that lived around 400,000 years ago. The polar bear has become perfectly adapted to life in the cold, with small ears to reduce potential heat loss and thick fur to cover layers of heat retaining fat. Traces of polar bear have been found in the brown bear genome suggesting an episode of interbreeding after the two species split.
I won’t lie, I know nothing about polar bears. I’ve seen a polar bear ‘up close’ at the Yorkshire Wildlife Park – whoever thought there would be polar bears in Doncaster? But apart from the basics I have no knowledge of the majestic Arctic giant. So I thought as it’s International Polar Bear Day today, I could use this as an opportunity to teach myself about them and tell you all a little about polar bears and the threats they are facing today.
As I mentioned, each part of the polar bears anatomy is has adapted perfectly to combat challenges in their environment. An adult male can weigh over a whopping 800kg and females around half that size. You would think an animal of such enormous weight would risk cracking the icy terrain they traverse daily, but this of course is not the case. When crossing patches of thin ice, the polar bear lowers it’s body closer to the ground by spreading the legs further apart, distributing the weight over a larger surface area. Think about that scene when Bambi slid across the ice, legs everywhere, but a lot more precise and purposeful. Their big paws can measure 11 inches across and the black pads are covered in bumps which help them to grip the ice. The sizable paws act as swimming aids in the water, the front paws as paddles and the back paws as rudders, steering the bears through the water in pursuit of prey. Polar bears can be found in Alaska, Greenland, Norway, Canada and Russia. Their sea ice homes are forever moving and changing meaning the bears have huge ranging distances and no territorial boundaries, most bear seems to have a ‘home range’ of several hundred miles though as you can expect, tracing and tagging a polar bear is quite tricky.
Now we know a bit more about polar bears, let’s explore some of the threats facing these beautiful animals and what we can all do to help polar bear conservation. The earth is heating up, extreme climate events are becoming more and more frequent and are likely to become more damaging for everyone, the longer we go without acting. It’s true the world goes through climatic phases, but the problem is we have spent the last 200 years burning through fossil fuels, creating a huge increase in greenhouse gasses. Imagine putting a foil emergency blanket around you, hugging a hot water bottle and not allowing any heat to escape. Feeling warm? That’s how the planet feels right now and it’s getting hotter. Alongside the increase of greenhouse gasses, we are chopping down trees at an alarming rate, destroying huge areas of rainforests. What does that have to do with polar bears I hear you ask? Well, trees soak up excess carbon dioxide and that is one of the greenhouse gasses I’ve been talking about, so the more deforestation that takes place, the less trees there are to help soak up the damage we have created. So not only are we increasing the greenhouse gasses, we are removing one of our opportunities to clean up the air! Sounds crazy when you put it simply like that doesn’t it? What are we doing?!
So back to polar bears – the IUCN (you heard about them in the World Pangolin Day post) have listed the polar bear as vulnerable and it’s estimated there are around 23,000 individuals in the wild. The abrupt peak in Artic temperatures resulting in a dramatic decrease in sea ice is reported as the single most dangerous threat to the species. So why can’t polar bears just move inland as the sea ice shrinks? Well it’s not that easy. Imagine if land, say England where I am currently, began shrinking. There would quickly be less space, less food, more competition and more stress on the individuals that depend on the land. And it’s exactly the same for polar bears. They live, hunt, breed and depend on the ice to live. The more ice shrinks, the more polar bears are forced to travel further out of their home range in order to find food. Polar bears stock up their fat supplies during the summer months and if they are having to swim and walk further to find limited resources, the result is malnourished bears, unable to survive the winter months, unable to breed efficiently, unable to thrive as a species. To lose polar bears would have a huge knock on effect. Polar bears are apex predators and contribute to limiting the Arctic seal populations. If polar bears disappeared, seals would quickly overpopulate the region, eating all the fish that are usually a food source for other wildlife and local human populations. Scavengers such as the Arctic foxes and birds depend on the hunting behaviours of the polar bear, so do you see how losing one species would have such a huge knock on effect on the whole Arctic ecosystem? Not to mention how devastating it would be to lose another animal because of the actions of humans. The species is also under threat from direct human action of course. A reduction in sea ice is forcing polar bears to look for food in other places, including places where humans live. I’m sure you can guess what humans do when they see a huge polar bear entering their town. It’s reported that there has been a 600% increase in the shooting of ‘problem bears’ from 1991 – 2012. Polar bears are hunted for their fur and meat however in most cases, the hunts are governed by yearly quotas and suggestions are made about how to hunt sustainably. Despite the recommendations, polar bear skins are still exported in their hundreds in the form of rugs and even taxidermied bears which are seen as a status symbol. Despite a decline in demand in some parts of the world, others are seeing a steady increase but the USA made the importation of skins illegal as soon as the species hit the IUCN list.
What can we do about it then? Well, we are causing the problems so it’s up to us to do something about it. Of course addressing the issues surrounding the hunting of polar bears is vital – there must be a crack down on companies who are exploiting the polar bear populations to meet the global demand for fur items to increase and show off their social status. There is a lot to be learnt from communities who have lived alongside the polar bear for thousands of years and who have an in depth understanding of their changing behaviour, population, migration patterns and sustainability. As previously mentioned, climate change continues to be the main threat to polar bears today, we can collectively help in the push for change by being conscious about our carbon footprint and reducing this – I will be publishing a blog post specifically about our carbon footprint soon so stay tuned! It goes without saying that reducing and reversing the process of deforestation and making the planet greener (literally) will help to suck up all that carbon dioxide and reduce emissions that are lingering in the air and suffocating our beautiful Earth. Finally, as always, you can do your bit by learning about endangered species, telling your friends about them, signing petitions to pressure governments to act and donating to the wonderful polar bear conservation organisations who do fantastic work to promote and preserve the lives of these incredible beings for many years to come. It’s predicted there will be a 30% decline in populations by 2050. It’s up to all of us now.
For more information and to get involved in polar bear conservation, please visit:
Get Involved – Polar Bears International
Top 10 facts about polar bears | WWF
Should polar bear hunting be legal? It’s complicated. (nationalgeographic.com)
Adopt a Polar Bear | WWF
Ursus maritimus (Polar Bear) (iucnredlist.org)