The polar bear is the world's largest land carnivore and one of the largest of the bear family.

Polar Bears and Humans

Traditionally, the polar bear has been hunted by the Inuit people of North America and Greenland for its fur and flesh, but it wasn't until Western people began hunting the bear for 'sport', often from aircraft, that the numbers of polar bears dwindled. Between 1965 and 1970 the population of polar bears was estimated at only 8,000 - 10,000 and it was classified as an endangered species.

Fortunately, in 1973, an international agreement banned the hunting of the polar bear, only the native Inuits are allowed to kill them. Since the ban, the polar bear population steadily increased and the current population worldwide is now between 20,000 - 25,000.   It is an endangered animal and there are serious threats to the continued increase of the population; these are...

Habitat destruction

The exploration and recovery of natural gas and oil in the Arctic Basin could destroy important polar bear habitat and food supplies if an accident should occur in the Polar sea - especially as the number of oil wells increases. The human population density may also increase as the development grows and this would increase the likelihood of human and polar bear conflicts.

Pollution

Toxic chemicals e.g. PCBs, dumped in the sea, even in small amounts, are transferred up the food chain until they become concentrated and accumulate in polar bear body fat. Scientists believe that these chemicals could affect the bears' reproduction and they may not be able to produce as many young as normal. Most countries banned PCBs in the 1980s when they discovered how dangerous they are but unfortunately they can persist for decades.  They can impede the bears’ immune system and cause birth defects.  There has been a noticeable increase in the level of organochlorines found in several polar bears in Canada.

Tourism

Tourist activity has increased in several areas which has led to accommodation building and the use of all-terrain vehicles and aircraft for aerial tours. This interference means humans come into contact with polar bears and can result in harassment, or even killing in self-defence. Indirectly it may also lead to the bears leaving their habitat to search for peace or abandoning their traditional dens. 

However a respectful, limited level of tourism may be beneficial for the polar bears whilst also generating income for local people as many tour operators follow a code of conduct and partake in conservation efforts.  Tourism is limited anyway with only a limited number of permits to go around.  At least visitors will increase their understanding of the problems polar bears and the Arctic are facing and this awareness will surely help to safeguard their futures.

Climate Change

In March 2009 delegates from the US, Canada, Russia, Greenland and Norway met in Norway for the first meeting of its kind for 25 years and officially recognised that the greatest threat to polar bears has shifted from hunting to climate change.

Polar Bear - Dungarees © Emma Bishop CC BY 2.0The polar ice cap lies at the centre of the Arctic sea, extending 500 miles from the north pole. The rest of the Arctic sea only freezes for a part of the year so that during the winter time the area of ice more than doubles.   This crust of ice, called “pack ice”, is where the polar bears like to hunt during the winter.  Every year between June and October this ice melts. However global warming has resulted in there being about 15% less ice than there was 20 years ago.

Sea ice extent in December 2014 averaged 12.52 million square kilometers (4.83 million square miles). This is 540,000 square kilometers (208,495 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 long-term average of 13.06 million square kilometers (5.04 million square miles) and 500,000 square kilometers (193,051 square miles) above the record low for the month observed in 2010.

Polar bears hunt near to the edge of the pack ice where it is thinner so that they can catch seals.  They only need to eat one seal every 4 to 5 days but finding food is becoming more of a problem for polar bears as the area of pack ice gets smaller.  Every year the winter time shortens, the water freezes later and the summer returns earlier, melting the ice.  Its not that polar bears can’t live on land - they do, but they need to eat and the main place to find food is on the ice!

During June to October the sea ice melts and the bears are unable to hunt seals until it freezes over again.  They are capable of fasting but longer times of fasting mean they are going hungry and are less likely to survive.  The lack of food has also caused a drop in the birth rate.  The hungrier they are, the more aggressive they become which is particularly an issue in Hudson Bay where polar bears and people come in close contact with one another.

Polar bears are excellent swimmers indeed and 15 miles for them poses no problem at all.   However, in recent years they have been forced to to swim longer distances between ice floes sometimes swimming up to 60 miles across open sea to find an ice platform from which to hunt. This can leave the polar bears feeling exhausted and vulnerable to hypothermia.  They can even drown if they are caught up in a storm so far from the ice pack or land.

Read More: The Future

Related Resources