The polar bear has been ‘endangered’ for fifteen years. Are the pitiful films overused or is it really that bad?


A polar bear on the melting ice in Spitsbergen, Norway, in 2013.Image AFP

Why is the polar bear ‘endangered’?

On YouTube you can find an untruthful, but beautifully edited movie from National Geographic, in which a tired, limp, weary polar bear fights for every step he takes. A pitiful little piece of music has been put under the video. The polar bear strolls between grass and rocks to a metal barrel, the only place he can find food. “This is what climate change looks like,” read the caption.

Also read: That heartbreaking video of an emaciated polar bear, is that what it seems?

A harbinger for the future? The Arctic Circle will only get greener and grayer in the coming decades. “Scientists agree that we probably lost a third of our polar bears by the middle of this century,” says Gert Polet, Arctic expert at the Dutch branch of WWF.

That is why the IUCN, an international conservation partnership, included the polar bear in its list of endangered species exactly 15 years ago. The animal is known as ‘vulnerable’, even under the more alarming categories of ‘endangered’, ‘critical’, ‘extinct in the wild’ and ‘extinct’.

That is still not so bad?

Despite the rising temperatures in recent decades, there is no less polar bear on the globe. On the contrary, the Polar Bear Specialist Group of the IUCN estimated the population at 25,000 polar bears in 2019. That is actually higher than fifteen years ago.

Why is the situation alarming?

In the 1960s and 1970s, the number of polar bears in the world declined rapidly. The animal was an attractive object for commercial hunting. In 1973, in the middle of the Cold War, the countries made agreements with polar bears. The Soviet Union, the United States, Denmark, Norway and Canada decided that the killing of the beasts was only allowed for scientific reasons, or for their own safety or livelihood.

In the decades since, those countries have taken polar bear protection more and more seriously. The influence that the human hunt had on the numbers is steadily declining. In addition, a little climate change was not that bad for some polar bears, says Polet. More floes and weaker ice make seals – the polar bear’s favorite meal – easier prey.

But a turnaround is imminent, Polet predicts. He points to the Norwegian archipelago Spitsbergen, around which the number of polar bears has remained stable in recent decades. Norway completely banned polar bear hunting decades ago. ‘But we are still not at the pre-1960s level.’

According to Thor Larsen, professor emeritus at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and former research leader at the Norwegian Polar Institute, this is easy to explain: climate change has already struck. There are now far fewer snow caves on Spitsbergen, in which the female polar bears hide during the first months of their motherhood, says Larsen. This is a strong indication that fewer cubs are being raised and are surviving the education. His suspicion: the hard-to-make estimates are too positive.

And what now?

Really no longer chasing the beast, as in Norway, would be the beginning of a solution. But that’s tricky. Polar bear hunting is an important source of income for Inuit in Canada and Greenland. They cannot be convinced of climate change. “The Inuit say they see more polar bears than ever,” says Larsen.

In doing so, they appeal to the age-old experience they have with the beast. ‘It is a conflict between scientific and traditional knowledge. That is always very sensitive politically, ‘says the emeritus professor.

There is only one option to protect the survival of the polar bear in the long term, says Polet: ‘All together emit fewer greenhouses. If we don’t, we will have an ice-free North Pole by the end of this century. ‘

Then what happens to the polar bears?

It is therefore likely that the polar bear population will decrease significantly in the coming decades. Still, Polet does not see the animal dying out completely, even if the temperatures continue to rise.

That would mean that the polar bears have to spend the summer on shore. They ‘don’t like that’, but you shouldn’t underestimate the learning ability of polar bears, says the polar expert. ‘You see that the polar bears on Spitsbergen, for example, increasingly focus on looking for geese eggs. A small number can survive. ‘

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