The plight of the polar bear has been with us ever since we first heard about the loss of sea ice in the Arctic. Global warming is now the most important threat to the survival of this beautiful animal.
A new study by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has found that there is likely to be a 30% decline in our bear population of 26,000 by 2050 due to loss of habitat, which is disappearing more quickly than even climate models predicted.
The polar bear depends on seasonal sea ice from which it can catch its prey of ring seals and bearded seals; after its summer fast it is vital that it replenish its fat stores to prepare for the next breeding season. If there are more than five months free from ice, hunger will spread amongst the bears, leaving them facing starvation and reproductive failure. Global warming could also increase the incidence of disease among the bears’ prey, further emphasising their predicament.
Sea ice in western Hudson Bay, in Canada, has reduced by one day per year over the last thirty years which has also brought the polar bear into conflict with human settlements, such as Churchill. The bears are opportunists, so will scavenge anything, including human rubbish, when they are hungry. Recently, the five polar bear range states – Canada, Greenland, USA, Russia and Norway – agreed an action plan, described as a conservation strategy to safeguard polar bears in the wild. Let’s hope it is successful.