Endangered Species: The Polar Bear

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As the world’s largest land-based carnivore, the Polar bear is in danger of becoming extinct as a result of climate change. This mighty animal is at risk from global warming, as the Arctic ice on which it depends is gradually melting away.

As the sea ice melts, increasing numbers of polar bears will starve, according to a new scientific study, the US Geological Survey. Male polar bears can weigh up to 450kg and need around 12,325 calories a day to survive. They have a high metabolism and are largely dependent on seals as their main food source.


Climate change

However, with climate change causing a reduction in sea ice of 14% per decade, the ice is breaking up quickly. This has a twofold effect on the polar bears’ wellbeing. First, there are fewer seals around, and secondly, the polar bear’s traditional hunting method is in jeopardy.

Normally, they wait on the ice and grab the seals as they pop up from the sea for air, but now, the polar bears are increasingly having to swim to look for prey, using up more energy for fewer rewards.

Polar bears can lose weight rapidly but can regain it equally quickly by eating seals. A 500kg polar bear can eat a 100kg seal in one meal. However, as the bears travel farther to get to the ice and hunt seals, they are losing more weight.

Eventually, they start to lose muscle, and this reduces their chances of successfully hunting their prey. It becomes a downward spiral, as the weaker they become, the less chance they have of catching food.

As the sea ice is further diminished,  the bears will have to travel even wider afield, further hampering their chances of catching prey as they become increasingly weak.


Population decline

There are an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 polar bears living in 19 groups scattered across Greenland, at the top of the United States and in Norway, Canada and Russia.

The population has fallen by 40% in the past ten years alone and scientists predict the global population could be less than 10,000 by 2050 if climate change continues at its current rate. The current status of the polar bear population is “vulnerable”, and it is listed as having a decreasing population.

Scientists recognise seven stages of extinction: least concern, conservation dependent, near threatened, vulnerable, endangered, critically endangered and extinct in the wild, before the species becomes extinct.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature has classed polar bears as “vulnerable”, meaning they are on the road to becoming endangered, unless the circumstances that threaten their survival change. It means they face a high risk of extinction in the wild in the medium-term future.

Polar bears first became a threatened species in May 2008 and have declined further over the past decade. Their protection and survival have become urgent considerations for the World Wildlife Fund.


Other threats

As well as climate change, there are other threats to the polar bear population. Offshore petroleum operations in the Arctic have expanded, affecting the bears’ habitat. Should there be an oil spill, this would have disastrous effects, impacting on the whole food chain.

Similarly, increasing Arctic shipping has risks for the polar bear population, in the shape of potential oil spills and human disturbances to the wildlife.

In addition, while much of the Arctic practices polar bear monitoring and management, there are still areas where illegal and unsustainable hunting occurs.


Conservation efforts

The WWF is increasing its conservation efforts in Alaska and Russia. It runs community projects to prevent fatal encounters between people and polar bears, including using patrol teams to keep the people and the bears safe, bear-proof food storage bins and improved fencing and lightning. The idea is to bring the community together to share their expertise on non-lethal ways of deterring polar bears.

Scientists are monitoring the polar bear population and the condition of the bears in Canada, Norway and US regions of the Arctic, to better understand the results of climate change and industry in the region.

Polar bear trackers use data from WWF research teams to monitor the tagged animals by satellite. The bears’ range is monitored, and scientists can see how habitat use is changing over time due to the shifting ice.



WWF also funds polar bear researchers in Russia and the US, so they can exchange scientific information with other researchers to pool resources. WWF works with scientists at the specialist DNA firm, SPYGEN, to pioneer the extraction of DNA from a polar bear footprint to better track their movements and habitat changes.

Scientists are aiming towards protecting a natural “safety net” of ice in the Arctic of Greenland and Canada, covering 320 million acres, to help it to remain longer than the ice anywhere else. WWF has been working with partner organisations to save the area’s biodiversity since 1992.

The aim is to ensure that when industrial development takes place, it doesn’t damage wildlife and ecosystems and is sustainable. WWF provides technical expertise on preventing oil spills, and the response to such a disaster. Collaborating with conservation groups, scientists and local residents, they also oppose new gas and oil developments in areas where the ecological value is too important to risk an oil spill.

To help maritime vessels steer clear of fragile areas in the Arctic, WWF prepares shipping maps and offers best practices for shipping, working with the International Maritime Organisation on a Polar Code for safer shipping.


Polar Bear Day

To highlight the problem and educate people, International Polar Bear Day has been designated as 27th February each year by Polar Bears International – an organisation that asks people to become involved as individuals in saving the bears.

The Thermostat Challenge invites people to lower their thermostat, even by just one degree, to lower their carbon emissions and slow down climate change. The group has its own Facebook page with details of campaigns.

The group also compiles interesting facts about polar bears to attract people’s interest – for example, the biggest polar bear ever recorded was a male who weighed a whopping 1,000kg. Females, in general, are smaller than males and weigh an average 295kg. The bears have a keen sense of smell, sniffing out a seal from 20 miles away on the ice.

Polar bears don’t hibernate – the mother bears live in dens between January and March while raising their cubs. Their fur is transparent, rather than pure white. It appears white because it reflects the light of their surroundings.

Conservationists are urging everyone to play their part, however small, in stemming climate change before it’s too late. Extinction is forever!


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