Seven Worlds, One Planet

Saving a conservation icon – the polar bear

By Alfie Shaw

If someone asked you to name a species in need of conservation, it wouldn’t take long for you to land upon the polar bear.

While they are not facing imminent extinction, the devastation caused to their habitats by climate change puts their long-term survival at risk and their numbers are predicted to decline by 30% by 2050.

A group of polar bears hunting for food near water
Polar bears are sometimes seen in groups when the hunt for food brings them closer together. © BBC NHU
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It is estimated that there are 26,000 polar bears in the wild, living across countries that border the Arctic Ocean, including Canada, Russia and Norway. The most iconic animal of the Arctic, polar bears are perfectly adapted to the unique challenges such a harsh environment. Their large feet distribute the weight of their large bodies when walking on snow or thin ice and their paddles-like paws are perfect for swimming, propelling them through the water.

The one polar bear fact that might surprise you - their famously white fur is actually translucent, and only appears white because it reflects visible light. And beneath all that thick fur, their skin is jet black. Polar bears are considered a keystone species for the Arctic which means several species such as Arctic foxes and glaucous gulls benefit by scavenging on polar bear kills.

Although most are born on land, polar bears spend the majority of their lives around water and on the sea ice of the Arctic Ocean. They are excellent swimmers, able to travel long distances, and can reach a top speed of 6mph. Polar bears are capable of swimming steadily for hours between the arctic ice. They have been known to travel areas of up to 600,000 sq km to find their prey. Polar bears have an incredibly well-developed sense of smell and can sniff out prey up to 1km away. And the food they spend most of their time sniffing out is the ringed seal. In fact, ringed seals and polar bears are so synonymous that the abundance of ringed seals in some areas appears to regulate the density of polar bears and vice versa.

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the global average melting the sea ice that is vital to the polar bears’ ability to find food. Sea ice is also where courtship and mating takes place. During the breeding season (April and May), females need to gain more than twice their body weight – precious reserves for the months ahead. However, with longer melting seasons, sea ice is forming later and breaking up earlier making it hard for pregnant females to build up fat stores need to survive birthing and nursing young.

The polar bear’s food supply is also directly impacted by the melting ice. Seals, their main meal, also breed on the ice and as the seal population dwindles, it has forced polar bears to look further afield for food. This has increased conflict between humans and polar bears, as they come closer to human settlements looking for food.

A polar bear hunts beluga whales in Hudson Bay
A polar bear hunts beluga whales in Hudson Bay. © BBC NHU

The fight to save polar bears is intrinsically linked to the efforts fight climate change. However, there are several organisations dedicated to aiding polar bears. Polar Bears International is the only conservation group dedicated to helping polar bear. Comprising scientists and conservationists, they are dedicated to expanding our knowledge about polar bear using state-of-the-art technology, such as drones and electronic collars with cameras attached. Another is the International Association for Bear Research and Management (IBA) a group with over 500 members from over 60 countries who work together to share research and information on eight bear species including the polar bear. The IBA also awards funds to various conservation projects around the world through the Bear Conservation Fund.

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