In the 1960s an environmental, political and social movement emerged with the aim of protecting all species, living systems, and natural resources, worldwide. The movement encompasses wildlife conservation, which focuses on animal and plant species, as well as their natural habitat. The goal is to help protect them, not only for future generations and any value they may offer humans, but also for their own inherent significance.
When presenting population figures on a particular animal species conservationists often report how many are left “in the wild,” reminding us that some animals are held in captivity. In addition, as the human population continues to grow at an unprecedented rate and modern civilisation threatens all that is natural, the numbers we’re given usually show a decline in population. The polar bear has garnered a lot of attention in the past decade for these reasons, raising regular debate over whether enough is being done to prevent habitat loss and possible extinction.
In advance of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) – scheduled to take place in Thailand in March – there has been a recent surge in support for new legislation to protect the polar bear. In 2010, at the last CITES summit, Canada and the European Union ignored pleas to “uplist” the polar bear and led a vote in favor of lighter regulation. Now, the United States is again proposing an upgraded status of Appendix I, which would impose an effective international ban on the trade in all polar bear parts.
HUNTING AND INTERNATIONAL TRADE
The polar bear’s habitat covers Canada; Denmark (Greenland); Norway (Svalbard); Russia; and the U.S. (Alaska), throughout which it has always played an important cultural and spiritual role in indigenous communities. Native subsistence hunting to provide raw materials was usually small enough in scale not to affect the population, but in the 1960s and 1970s large scale hunting raised international concern when numbers dropped significantly. As a direct result the hunting of polar bears was completely banned in Norway, while in Greenland; Russia; and the U.S. non-native hunting was banned and native subsistence hunting curtailed. In these countries populations rebounded after controls took effect, but Canada is yet to take any action.
Although its entire range hasn’t been comprehensively studied, based on the tag and track studies which have been conducted it is estimated there are 20-25,000 polar bears left in the wild. Of these 16,000 live in Canada, where approximately 500 are killed annually. Growing interest from China and Russia, in particular, has led to an increase in demand for sport-hunting and trophies, with wealthy tourists paying up to $20,000 to hunt and $100,000 for a polar bear pelt.
GLOBAL WARMING, SEA ICE AND THE ARCTIC
Unfortunately, hunting is only the polar bear’s second greatest threat. In 2006 the International Union for Conservation in Nature (IUCN) upgraded the polar bear from a species of least concern to a vulnerable species, citing climate change as the main reason; followed in 2008 by the U.S. Department of the Interior listing it as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. In fact, the polar bear has unwittingly become the poster child of climate change, and not by chance.
Over the past 25 years the average temperature of the atmosphere and oceans has risen, causing the summer to lengthen and sea ice cover to decline. These changes gravely affect polar bears because of their dependence upon sea ice for food and habitat; and having evolved to become perfectly adapted to the Arctic Circle and Polar Basin, without this habitat they cannot survive. Based on current predictions, by 2050 only those polar bears living in the Canadian Arctic Islands and along the northern coast of Greenland, where sea ice is expected to remain, will be alive. This accounts for less than a third of the current population and, as sea ice retreats at a rate faster than previously predicted, even this could be optimistic.
INDUSTRIAL DEVELOPMENT AND OIL EXPLORATION
Regrettably, additional pressure is put on the ecological and environmental health of these delicate areas by industrial development. In Canada, Russia and the U.S. onshore oil exploration and extraction has taken place for many years and the threat it poses is only increasing as companies push north, further into the polar bear’s habitat. The sensitive dens set up for pregnant females and those with cubs are easily disturbed which can cause the mother to abandon her young, while an oil spill could affect the polar bear’s entire food supply. In addition, any oil ingested could cause fatal kidney failure; and if their fur came into contact with oil it would no longer provide insulation, increasing the chance of death from hypothermia.
In 1973 the International Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears was signed by Canada, Denmark, Norway, the U.S. and the former U.S.S.R. to manage preservation of the polar bear’s habitat and population, as well as conduct vital research. These countries agreed to ban hunting from aircraft and icebreakers, as well as place restrictions on commercial and recreational hunting, permitting only that by indigenous people using traditional methods. With other threats emerging, however, a lot more must be done.
The agreement holds these five countries accountable for taking appropriate action to protect the polar bear, but in reducing our own carbon footprint we can help to preserve the arctic marine ecosystem.
Minimise consumption: reduce, reuse and recycle; and when purchasing new products ensure they are both sustainable and made by an environmentally-friendly company. Furthermore, buy and cook only what food you’ll eat, and use only what water you need.
Be energy efficient: use energy-efficient appliances, bulbs and electronics, turning them off when not in use. If possible use conventional methods, i.e. washing dishes by hand, and use green power from utility suppliers that don’t exploit oil and gas reserves.
Please remember that species can only be conserved as part of their entire ecosystem, so do not support zoos. With any luck the above image should show how unnatural these environments are.
Photo credit: Jennifer Mairéad