The polar bear – chances of survival

The polar bear – chances of survival

19 February 2013

On February 14, 2013 Nikita Ovsyannikov, deputy director of Russia's Wrangel Island polar bear reserve, delivered a lecture entitled “The polar bear – chances of survival” at the Moscow auditorium of the Russian Geographical Society. The polar bear is the only land mammal to spend almost its entire life on the drifting ice of the Arctic. It is a beautiful, fascinating, intelligent and self-learning predator, qualities that are clearly illustrated in Ovsyannikov’s auteur film about his encounters with polar bears.


The melting of the Arctic sea ice is steadily decreasing the area of the polar bear’s main habitat. The animal's population is falling for other reasons as well. Ovsyannikov cited alarming data on the reproduction of the polar bear population. Just 11% of female polar bears are able to perform the reproductive function. Wrangel Island has always been a kind of a maternity home for polar bears, to which females swam or walked across ice to enter dens and produce offspring. This situation is becoming worse each year. Female polar bears still come to the island as a ritual, but often leave it without giving birth to cubs – the instincts are still there but there may be no offspring.


The warming is also affecting the food supply of polar bears and, hence, their way of life. Ovsyannikov mentioned an increase in their attacks on walruses, which was a rare occurrence in the past. Several hundred such attacks were registered during the past year. Bears have to be very cautious – if they are injured and are unable to hunt, they await certain death.  The anthropogenic impact on the polar bear is also on the rise.


The problem of saving the polar bear from extinction is both environmental and political. The polar bear is a subject of international agreements and conventions that are not always effective. Ovsyannikov cited dismal news about legalised hunting of polar bears in Canada. It is unsurprising, then, that Canada is one of the most active opponents of raising the polar bear’s conservation status.


At a meeting in Thailand in March, parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) will decide the issue of transferring the polar bear from the convention’s appendix 2 to appendix 1, which would completely outlaw its hunting.


The risk of the polar bear becoming extinct as a species is real, and its protection is inadequate. Given the level of modern science, our understanding of environmental issues and the endless talk about the importance of protecting flora and fauna, we must save the polar bear. If it disappears from the face of the Earth we would be committing the worst crime against the environment of the 21st century.


Ovsyannikov is convinced that the polar bear can and should produce revenue, but not because of its precious fur but as a great attraction of ecotourism. This model has long been known and has proved a success in Spitsbergen. Let’s hope that Wrangel Island also makes the sensible choice of ecotourism.