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King of the Arctic centre stage on International Polar Bear Day

Updates Home | 2.27.2016

From hunting to climate change, threats to polar bears have evolved – but our fascination with them remains, writes Andrew E. Derocher, Professor at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada, and member of the IUCN SSC Polar Bear Specialist Group.

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February 27 is a special day for the Arctic’s top predator: International Polar Bear Day. Given the diversity of species on Earth, we’d need a much larger calendar to have a day for every species, and this raises the question of why we need a special day for polar bears.

One could argue that polar bears are beautiful and that might warrant special attention. Alternatively, one could argue that they are important from an ecological perspective – but then so are many other species in an Arctic marine ecosystem.

International Polar Bear Day is, however, an opportunity to highlight some of the amazing ecology of polar bears. This is a species that survives in an incredibly challenging part of the world: a species that lives through the Arctic night which can last for months, endures frigid temperatures and howling storms, makes a living as an obligate predator of seals (really more of a fat-eating ‘lipivore’ than a carnivore), and all of this lived out in a relatively featureless world of sea ice that drifts and moves on the winds and currents.

A pregnant female can go eight months without feeding, yet give birth to tiny cubs each the weight of a small puppy at birth. With incredibly fat-rich milk, females grow the cubs big enough to join them out on the ice for the spring hunt of seals.

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This is a species that has fascinated humans from our first contact. To this day, polar bears remain a vitally important aspect of the cultural, social, and economic well-being of northern people. Polar bear meat is still eaten by many northerners. In Canada, the sale of polar bear skins remains an important source of revenue.

The Icelandic Annals contain references to polar bears back to 890. In 1252, King Henry III in England received a polar bear as a gift from King Haakon IV of Norway: the bear was kept in the Tower of London and taken to the Thames to swim. A famous painting, “Nelson and the Bear” (Westall 1809), depicts Midshipman Horatio Nelson who tried to shoot a polar bear in Svalbard: he was lucky and survived, only to die another day, rather more famously.

This brings another point of reverence for polar bears: fear. Sometimes you get the bear and sometimes the bear gets you. Polar bears really are the original beauty and the beast all in one.

Our fascination with polar bear hides brought about the first management crisis for the species. Scientists and managers met in 1965 to address the possibility that these creatures could be hunted to extinction by uncontrolled harvest. The indiscriminate killing of polar bears from ships, planes, and baited traps was depleting the species.

As a result of the meeting, the five circumpolar nations that are home to polar bears signed the International Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears in 1973.  The agreement, which remains in force today, fostered management protocols that resulted in bear populations recovering from a severely depleted state. To assist with the species’ conservation, the IUCN/SSC Polar Bear Specialist Group was formed in 1968, and it remains an important mechanism for scientific management of the species.

These particular threats to polar bears remain in the past, however. Today, the main menace to these animals is the same one that so many other species face: habitat loss. While this can take many forms around the globe, for polar bears, it’s due to climate change and more particularly, global warming.

The Arctic is warming faster than most other parts of the planet and sea ice is disappearing at a frightening rate. At some point, polar bear habitat will no longer have enough sea ice to allow the bears sufficient access to their prey. We’re seeing the effects of sea ice loss in many parts, but not all parts, of the Arctic. With 19 subpopulations of polar bears, there are 19 different scenarios playing out.  All of these threats contribute to polar bears being listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.

February 27 is a day to learn about polar bears and to learn about ways we can reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. There is no nest box on a fence post solution to conserving polar bears: we need global action to reduce carbon emissions. Controlling climate change is about much more than “just polar bears”. However, we are getting an early warning from the bears and it’s up to us to listen. International Polar Bear Day is our chance to ponder how important polar bears are to us all. Future generations will judge us harshly should we not act.

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