Do polar bears have a future in today’s changing world?

Do polar bears have a future in today’s changing world?

6 March 2015

The polar bear is the youngest of the eight species of the Ursidae family that inhabit our planet. Recent genetic studies have shown that polar bears appeared in the Middle Pleistocene about 600,000 years ago, evolving from an ancestor of the brown bear. The polar bear’s ancestors were already well suited to living in cold climates and benefited from a number of adaptations that allowed them to thrive in the extremely harsh environment of Arctic sea ice as conditions on the planet changed. These adaptations allowed the polar bear to withstand extreme cold and strong winds, navigate unstable sea ice, swim in the cold ocean and hunt marine mammals.


The polar bear is the only species of land mammal whose primary habitat is the drifting sea ice of the Arctic sea. While pregnant females prefer to make maternity dens on the slopes of Arctic islands, the entire life cycle of the polar bear, from birth to death, can be confined to the sea ice.


The polar bear’s diet consists of Arctic pagophilic seals, ringed seals, bearded seals and walruses. Polar bears also hunt white whales, or belugas, and in lean times can get by on just about any food they can find. Along with being extremely well adapted to life on the Arctic ice and hunting for marine mammals, they have retained considerable ecological and behavioural flexibility, which allows them to survive in an extremely complex and variable environment.


The polar bear is the largest living land predator and the only species in the bear family that is exclusively carnivorous. Unlike their brown cousins, only pregnant female polar bears hibernate during the winter in order to have a safe shelter where they can give birth and care for their new-born cubs until the spring. All the rest, including mother bears with young cubs, continue to hunt on ice throughout the long Arctic winter and the polar night.


The polar bear’s behaviour is peculiar. A solitary creature, it spends most of its time wandering the vast expanses of pack ice in search of prey. However, detailed study of polar bear behaviour in the wild has revealed that they are, in fact, very social animals. Even as they roam the ice, they walk in the footsteps of other polar bears and leave marks. They follow other bears, watch each other, and observe what others are up to. They gather in places where there’s food, thus forming large groups with personal relations. They recognize bears they know and show high levels of tolerance for others in their communities. Polar bears exhibit highly-evolved and complex social behaviour, with lots of techniques to avoid aggressive behaviour and harming each other. While generally respectful of each other, they can be rough under certain circumstances. They don’t hunt in groups, like wolves, but are good at sharing – for example, several unrelated bears can feed on the same carcass. Up to 22 bears have been known to share food on occasion. This quality is important for the survival of the entire population.


Polar bears currently face difficult circumstances. Global warming is causing Arctic ice to melt. The quality of the polar bear’s primary habitat is deteriorating. During the summer-autumn season, the drifting ice of ​​the continental shelf – where they spend most of their time – now completely disappears. Polar bears have to go ashore and stay in the coastal and marine ecosystems during open sea periods. These environmental changes are negatively affecting most polar bear populations and the well-being of the entire species. The adverse impact of changing ice conditions on polar bears has been confirmed by multiple studies. The death rate of polar bears, especially cubs in their first 18 months of life, is on the rise, hunting conditions are deteriorating alongside the physical wellbeing of these animals, the number of breeding females is dwindling, injuries are rife, the bears’ susceptibility to diseases is growing, and so on.


At a time when the survival of the polar bear is threatened by a changing environment, the adverse impact of human activity has been steadily increasing as well. According to experts, their current population is between 16,000 and 20,000. However, these estimates are most likely on the high side, since they lag behind the rapid changes in living conditions and the ever-increasing anthropogenic impact. Human threats to the polar bear are many. The most important ones include outright killing by humans, pollution, destruction of natural habitats, increasing wildlife disturbance, the risk of man-made disasters and oil spills in the Arctic. Canada, the United States and Greenland allow indigenous peoples to hunt polar bears. Canada even allows trophy hunting whereby indigenous peoples can sell their quotas and trade in bear skins. Continued hunting for this endangered species is an act of unprecedented cynicism that puts the polar bear’s survival in a changing environment in jeopardy.


In Russia and Norway, polar bear hunting is completely banned. Norway introduced the ban in 1973, while in Russia the ban has been in place since January 1, 1957. Russia is an Arctic country, and the polar bear has a special meaning for us. We have a long-standing tradition of protecting this extremely vulnerable Arctic creature, including progressive government policies. In addition to a complete ban on hunting, nature reserves are being created to protect its main reproductive habitats; the fight against poaching has been effective; work is underway to prevent encounters with humans and the shooting of polar bears that approach settlements; educational outreach programmes are being implemented, and so on.


Russia’s approach to protecting polar bears is a positive example and a model for preserving Arctic ecosystems and this majestic Arctic creature whose survival is threatened. Polar bears have the biological traits needed to survive climate change, as they have done more than once in their evolutionary history. But in today’s world, it is unlikely to survive, if the negative impact of the changing environment is exacerbated by the animal’s continued extermination at the hands of humans. Russia has a special role to play in preserving the polar bear; it is the country’s mission. The better part of the Arctic and half of the polar bear’s habitat are under Russian jurisdiction. If we are able to save the polar bear in Russia, we will save the entire species, no matter the challenge.


Nikita Ovsyanikov, Doctor of Biology, independent expert, polar bear expert, Distinguished Polar Explorer of Russia

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