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The Polar Bear:
Facts, Conservation and How You Can Help!

By Margaret Black

The word "Arctic" is derived from the ancient Greek word "Arktikos," which means "land of the great bear."  Throughout history, northern peoples have revered "the great sea bear" or Polar Bear, an animal perfectly suited to life in one of the most hostile environments on the planet.

Polar Bears are, indeed, amazing creatures!  

DID YOU KNOW...

  • They are the world's largest land carnivores? 

  • Male Polar Bears can grow to almost 3 metres in length and can weigh over 600 kilograms?  (females are about half that size)

  • Cubs weigh less than one kilogram, at birth?

  • The Polar Bear's normal body temperature is 98.6F... the same as ours?

  • The Polar Bear's skin is black, to absorb heat from the sun?

  • The Polar Bear's fur is hollow and translucent? (it contains no white pigment)

  • Polar Bears are so well insulated that they are nearly invisible to infrared cameras?  (only their breath and muzzles are easily seen)

  • The Polar Bear's main food sources are seals, beluga whales, young walruses and fish?

  • Their keen sense of smell allows them to sniff out the dens and breathing holes of their prey from a long distance?  

  • In the winter and spring, Polar Bears spend most of their time on the edges of ice packs hunting for food?

  • The Polar Bear can slow its metabolism in times of food scarcity to conserve energy until food is available again?

  • Polar Bears can swim more than 80 kilometres without resting?  

 

POPULATION AND THREATS
There are about 20-25,000 Polar Bears living 19 distinct populations in the wild.  Thirteen of these populations live partially or entirely within Canada.  This includes about two-thirds of the world's Polar Bears.  The status of the thirteen Polar Bear populations in Canada is currently as follows:

  • two are increasing

  • four are stable

  • five are decreasing

  • one other (the South Hudson's Bay population), which had been listed as stable, may also be decreasing

  • one has insufficient data to determine status

Over the past several years, climate change has caused the sea ice in the north to retreat at an unprecedented rate.  The amount, thickness and timing of sea ice break up have all been affected.  In January 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) confirmed earlier predictions that, due to climate warming, the sea ice melting trend will continue into the future.  This puts Polar Bears at risk because their range is limited by the availability of sea ice, which they use as a platform for hunting seals.  Many Polar Bears that would normally follow the retreat of sea ice and continue to hunt throughout the summer months, are now being driven inland, when sea ice melts entirely, forcing them to spend their summers fasting and living off fat stores in their bodies.  Inuit and scientific observations both confirm that this trend is already having a negative impact on adult body condition, cub survival and population numbers.

Hunting, increased human activity in the Arctic and pollution also put Polar Bears at risk.  Human activity often disturbs spring denning and feeding, and research has shown that Polar Bears are vulnerable to pollutants, which may interfere with their hormone regulation, immune system function and reproduction.  

Even at the best of times, Polar Bear reproductive rates are very low.  Most females only breed every three years; they raise their cubs until they are two-and-a-half years old.  This makes it hard for Polar Bears to recover quickly, when their numbers are reduced.

 

CONSERVATION EFFORTS
In 1955, Russia extended complete protection to the Polar Bear.  However, Russia does still allow hunting by indigenous people on the basis that it is part of their culture. 

In 1972, the U.S. passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which prohibits the harassment, injuring or killing of all marine mammal species, including Polar Bears.

In 1973, Canada, the U.S., Denmark, Norway and the former U.S.S.R. signed the International Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears and their Habitat. The goal of this agreement was to protect Polar Bear habitat, especially denning and feeding areas and migration routes.  Since that agreement was signed, Norway has had a complete ban on Polar Bear hunting in place.

In 2000, the Agreement between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of the Russian Federation on the Conservation and Management of the Alaska-Chukotka Polar Bear Population was signed.

In 2005, Greenland began placing limits on the hunting of Polar Bears.

In 2006, the World Conservation Union (IUCN) up-listed the Polar Bear from 'Lower Risk' to 'Vulnerable' on its Threatened Species Red List. This was primarily because of the threat posed by climate change-related declines in sea ice.

The American Government is currently considering a proposal that the Polar Bear be listed as 'Threatened' under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, due to sea ice-related concerns for the species' survival. A final decision is expected late in 2007.

Since 2002, the Polar Bear has been listed as a species of "Special Concern," under Canada's Species at Risk Act.  Hunting of Polar Bears is allowed, under this classification, but there is a quota system in place to prevent over-harvesting. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) is currently reviewing the Polar Bear's status.  The committee is expected to provide recommendations to the Minister of the Environment, regarding a suitable listing, in 2008.

Despite these conservation efforts, based on moderate projections of summer sea ice retreat, the U.S. Geological Survey predicts that two-thirds of the world's Polar Bears will disappear by 2050.  Polar Bears will no longer inhabit Europe, Asia or Alaska, and their numbers would be greatly reduced in the Canadian Arctic and the northern Greenland. The U.S. Geological Survey further speculates that, by 2080, Polar Bears will disappear entirely from Greenland and the northern Canadian coast, leaving only a remnant population living in and around the Canadian Arctic islands.

 

HOW YOU CAN HELP!


A.
Take Action at Home

From:  World Wildlife Fund International:
http://www.panda.org/about_wwf/what_we_do/climate_change/what_you_can_do/
consumer_tips/index.cfm

You can help to switch off global warming and start today - by using clean energy and cutting down on wasted energy.

10 good ideas for a start

1. Switch to renewable energy
Buy non-polluting green electricity from your electricity company. If they don't sell it, can you change power companies to one that does? Get your school, company or community to buy renewable energy, too.  

2. Buy energy efficient appliances
If you're buying a washing machine, refrigerator, dish washer or oven, buy the most energy-efficient model you can afford. They might be more expensive but they pay for themselves through lower energy bills. The same is true for office equipment like computers, copiers, printers.

3. Fluorescent lamps are cheaper in the long run
Replace the lights you use most with compact fluorescent lamps. They cost more than ordinary lamps but you end up saving money because they use only around one-quarter of the electricity to prove the same light. And they last four times as long as a normal light bulb!

4. Avoid stand-by and turn off lights
Turn off televisions, videos, stereos and computers when they are not in use - they can use between 10 and 60% of the power they use when on "stand by". Turn off lights when you don't need them - it saves energy already after a minute or two. Turn off computer screens when you take a break.

5. Wash economically
Use the washing machine or dish washer only when you have a full load. Use washing powder suitable for low temperature washes and use economy programs.

6. About your fridge
Don't leave fridge doors open for longer than necessary, let food cool down fully before putting it in the fridge or freezer, defrost regularly and keep at the right temperature. Where possible don't stand cookers and fridges/freezers next to each other.

7. Getting around and on your way to work and school
When you want to make short journeys, try walking! Use a bicycle for short trips and local shopping. It keeps you fit too and is fun too! Make more use of public transport, such as buses and trains, for longer journeys. Share care journeys with work colleagues or friends - up to a third of car mileage is accounted for by the drive to work.

8. About your car
If you have to buy a car, buy a fuel-efficient, environmentally friendly one. This will save you money and keep more CO2 from going into the atmosphere. Make sure that your tires are inflated correctly - this can save you 5% on the cost of your gasoline. Turn off your engine when waiting in your car.

9. Reduce your air travel
When you travel to your holiday destination by plane you are contributing to significant emissions of climate change causing carbon dioxide. So take vacations nearer to home, or get there by other forms of transport such as train, bus or boat. If you have to fly, consider buying carbon offsets to compensate for the emissions caused by your flight.

10. Enjoy the sun!   :-)
Fit solar panels on the roof of your home. Turn your own home into a clean power station!

We can all do something right away.
And if we all do, something will undoubtedly change.

 

B.  Make a donation to World Wildlife Fund Canada!

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