Humans have known of the existence of polar bears since the time of ancient Rome (the 1st century A.D.). The historical records of Japanese emperors offer evidence that polar bears and their skins were brought to Japan and Manchuria in the 7th century A.D., but the populace of these countries could have become aware of these animals much earlier because even today polar bears sometimes wander as far as Japan with drifting ice.
The oldest written source found in Northern Europe containing information about polar bears dates back to approximately 880 A.D.: at that time two polar bear cubs were brought from Norway to Iceland. In 1774, British zoologist Constantine John Phipps was the first to describe the polar bear as a separate species.
The indigenous ethnic groups of the Arctic have been hunting these animals for as long as anyone can remember. However, as humans have become more active in the North, polar bear numbers have declined and polar bear hunting is now prohibited with a few exceptions.
The polar bear was placed on the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species and the Russian Red List of Threatened Species. Currently, polar bear hunting in Russia is completely prohibited, whereas in the United States, Canada and Greenland it is only restricted.
On November 21, 1956, the RSFSR (the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, a union republic included as part of the USSR) Council of Ministers signed a resolution in which the first item declared a prohibition on polar bear hunting beginning in 1957. First, in 1960, a wildlife reserve was established on Wrangel Island, one of the major polar bear breeding sites, and in 1976, the state-run Wrangel Island Nature Reserve was created there.
In 1973, Arctic countries signed an agreement on the conservation of polar bears and their habitat. Since being ratified and coming into effect in 1976, this agreement has served as an international legal foundation for protecting, researching and managing this species. The parties to that international agreement have committed to protect the polar bear. Polar bear hunting was completely prohibited, except subsistence hunting which is traditionally important for the indigenous population of the Arctic.
In October 2000, the Russian and US governments signed an agreement on the conservation and management of the Chukotka-Alaska polar bear population. Article 7 thereof reads that no provision in the agreement shall be construed as giving a right to engage in commercial polar bear hunting.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) puts the number of polar bears in the world at 20,000 to 25,000. However, already by 2050 the polar bear population may be diminished by two-thirds. The declining numbers of polar bears may be ascribed to the following factors:
1. Poaching. Although law prohibits polar bear hunting, the animals' skins and other parts, attained through polar bear hunting, have a very high price on the black market.
2. Global warming. The area of ice cover in polar bears' natural habitat, the Arctic, has retreated by 25% in the last few years, according to scientists. However, WWF experts believe these estimates to be very cautious and too optimistic because they think that glaciers have actually been melting at a higher rate.
3. Environmental pollution in the Arctic. The waters and coastal ecosystems are contaminated by pesticides, radioactive nuclides, fuel combustion products, heavy metals, fuels and lubricants, oil, etc.