Polar Bears: Threats and Conservation Efforts
Polar bears are the largest extant bear species and the largest extant land carnivores, native to the Arctic ocean and its areas. Polar bears are one of the aquatic mammals, and, although most of them are born on land, they spend most of their time on the sea ice.
Polar bears, unfortunately, are impacted by climate change and global warming, which leads to habitat loss. According to the IUCN Red List, polar bears are classified as vulnerable species. Polar bears specifically inhabit such regions as Canada, Greenland, Norway, Russia, and the United States. The population of polar bears remains unknown these days, in 2015, the IUCN estimated the global population of polar bears between 22 000 - 31 000 individuals.
Because of their remote home ranges and low population densities, it is difficult to estimate the global population of polar bears. The IUCN classified polar bears under the category of “Vulnerable,” criterion A3c, which means that there is a possibility of a decrease of the polar bears’ population by over 30% in the next three generations.
The main threats to the population of polar bears include climate change, pollution of toxic contaminants, the shipping industry, oil and gas development, and consequences of recreational polar-bear watching.
Oil and gas development
Polar bears, like many other aquatic animals, and their habitat are affected by oil and gas development. Specifically, an oil spill that occurred often lately can affect the areas where polar bears and their prey are located. Polar bears will likely lick the oil from their fur, which can lead to kidney failure and other diseases.
Climate change, at the present time, remains one of the major threats to animals, which also includes global warming. But polar bears are susceptible to these factors because of their habitats in the northern regions. Oftentimes, it remains unclear to a lot of people how our everyday life uses of the environment affect the animal world and the environment itself. Global warming is caused by both natural factors, such as large-scale shifts in weather patterns, and human activities, such as emissions of greenhouse gases. Of course, the largest trigger of global warming is the emission of greenhouse gases, which consist of carbon dioxide and methane.
The Arctic, in particular, is more impacted by climate change, which leads to melting ice and sea ice loss. Thus, it certainly impacts several ecosystems and leads to the extinction of lots of species, mostly in coral reefs, the Arctic, and mountains. According to the World Health Organization, climate change is the major global threat to health in the 21st century. And even some efforts were made to minimize the risks, some things will continue to occur for centuries, e.g, rising sea levels, rising ocean temperatures, ocean acidification.
Because the Arctic is the main habitat of polar bears, there were a lot of concerns expressed by polar bear biologists about the issue of climate change. One of the major dangers that are posed to these aquatic mammals is malnutrition and starvation. Rising temperatures in the oceans and seas cause ice to melt earlier than usual, which makes polar bears move to shore before they have even built fat reserves that would be sufficient to survive. For instance, in Hudson Bay, ice melts three weeks earlier than it did 30 years ago, which reduces the duration of the feeding season of polar bears. During 1987-2004, the population in Western Hudson Bay decreased by 22%, even though at that time the population was considered stable. But with the climate change effect, it was reported that ⅔ of the polar bears’ population may disappear by 2050. Moreover, the reduction in ice cover forces polar bears to swim longer distances, and sometimes it leads to drowning. Polar bears generally hunt seals, and thinner ice makes it difficult for polar bears to their food, which also leads to lower reproductive and survival rates.
Concerns regarding the polar bear population began back in the 1950s. The Soviet Union, for instance, banned polar bear hunting in 1956. Canada and Norway have also stepped up in protecting these marine mammals by establishing hunting quotas and strict regulations. The United States enacted the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972.
International Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears
The International Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears was adopted in 1973 and signed by all countries where the majority of the polar bears’ habitat is located. Those countries included Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Norway, the United States, and the Soviet Union (currently Russia). The treaty was adopted due to the increased hunting of polar bears in the 1960s and 1970s. This treaty prohibits unregulated sport hunting of polar bears and does not allow hunting from aircraft and icebreakers. Moreover, it imposes obligations on member countries to take steps to protect and conserve the ecosystem and the areas of polar bears’ dens.
The treaty allows the killing of polar bears only for bona fide scientific purposes, for preventing serious disturbances of other beings, and by the local population that uses animals in accordance with their traditions. Also, the export, import, and trafficking of polar bears must be prohibited by the members of the Agreement within their territories.
In 2000 (ratified in 2007), Russia and the United States signed an agreement to set quotas on hunting polar bears for indigenous people in Alaska and Chukotka.
In Greenland, the first hunting restrictions took place in 1994 and amended in 2005. The first restrictions did not impose limitations on hunting by indigenous people, but after amendments in 2005, there was a limit of 150 established by law. Other regulations were aimed at the protection of mothers and cubs, weapons restrictions, and administrative requirements.
Russia, the Soviet Union at the time, banned harvesting polar bears back in 1956, but it did not prevent people from poaching. Currently, the Red Book of Russia lists polar bears as rare, uncertain status, or rehabilitated and rehabilitating species. Moreover, in 2010, the strategy for the conservation of polar bears in Russia was developed by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment.
In the United States, polar bears are protected on a federal level by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which bans hunting, except by indigenous people, importing, and harassment of polar bears.
In addition, the Endangered Species Act lists polar bears as threatened species stating that the primary threat to the polar bear population is melting ice in the Arctic. The Act also prohibits importing of polar bears. In 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a Draft Conservation Management Plan for Polar Bears to elevate the status of these species under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act.
The United States also proposed to move polar bears from Appendix II of CITES to Appendix II, they are still currently listed under Appendix II.
Polar bears play a vital role in the entire ecosystem and being the top predators in their food web makes them important figures in the balance of the ecosystem. It is predicted that polar bears can disappear from Europe, Asia, and Alaska, and be depleted from Greenland and the Canadian Arctic Archipelago by 2080. And although it is claimed that polar bears would be able to adapt to different food sources, most biologists say that it would be impossible to completely endure the loss of regular prey.