Throughout the news and social media sites recently we have all seen the disturbing video of the starving polar bear on Baffin Island. While this video can be extremely difficult to watch, it must be seen. No longer can we bury our heads in the sand and hope that climate change and the effects it has on polar bears does not exist. While there is conjecture on whether it was indeed starvation due to the effects of climate change or another cause, such as old age or illness, the message is clear. If we, as humans, do not make a conscious effort to reduce carbon emissions, the aforementioned video will become the norm.
Studies conducted on Canadian polar bear populations have found a significant relationship between the time of breakup and the body condition of adult bears (ie the earlier the breakup the poorer the body condition) (Rode et al. 2012, Stirling et al. 1999) . Pregnant females are unable to gain enough weight which leads to lower reproductive success, cubs that are born have higher mortality rates and senior bears are dying earlier. This overall decrease in body condition is suggested to be linked to a later freeze up and earlier break up of sea ice, which has reached a total of six weeks longer.
Instances of orphaned cubs are also on the rise. Churchill, Manitoba is the ‘Polar Bear Capital’ of the world and has gained media attention recently with two orphaned cubs being rescued and taken to the Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg. Although this is a world class facility for polar bears, many members of the Churchill community were opposed to them being taken into captivity rather than being left to survive on their own. At roughly 11 months old, these cubs have lower chances of survive on their own, since they spend the first 2-3 years of their lives with their mothers, learning how to hunt and survive in the arctic. While Churchill suggested tracking the cubs in order to establish their chance of survival, there currently are no methods to do this that would guarantee the cubs were followed long enough to determine their success – or fate.
According to an article published Dec. 5th by CBC News, Manitoba’s Minister of Sustainable Development, Rochelle Squires said, “I heard the community very loud and clear and certainly do see the value in leaving these bears in their habitat and seeing if there’s a chance for survival and seeing if we can do research with them in their natural habitat as opposed to in the zoo.”
Captive facilities are able to gain information from bears in human care, that would be virtually impossible to obtain in normal field conditions. These facilities play a vital role in the research of many species, research which may not be possible with out them. Wild polar bear research is dangerous, expensive, environmentally unfriendly and potentially stressful on the animals involved. Research conducted on captive polar bears is done in an environment which is safe for both the bears and the humans involved. This type of research is often non-invasive or voluntary for the bear which creates a stress free environment. The results of these studies provide scientists with insights into physiology and behaviour, as well improvement of wild research methods and technologies.
The best course of action to help polar bears is to be aware of your impact on the environment. Track the amount of water, energy and types of food you are consuming before taking the next step. You can also help by supporting your local non-profit conservation organizations, like The Polar Bear Habitat, who are involved in some of the leading research that is critical for the survival of the species.
Rode, Karyn D., et al. “A tale of two polar bear populations: ice habitat, harvest, and body condition.” Population Ecology 54.1 (2012): 3-18.
Stirling, Ian, Nicholas J. Lunn, and John Iacozza. “Long-term trends in the population ecology of polar bears in western Hudson Bay in relation to climatic change.” Arctic (1999): 294-306.