* This article contains images that may upset some readers *
The videos of polar bears roaming through the streets of Russia has proved to be a huge draw online, but in reality it is only further evidence that their existence is under more threat than ever.
As International Polar Bear Day took place this week, there are a maximum of just 30,000 estimated to be left in the wild, with their numbers decreasing steadily in habitats like the Arctic and Canada. So why are they classified as vulnerable? Joe Harbert investigates.
Polar bears are dependent on sea ice for everything. They need it to hunt prey, raise cubs, rest and to travel. As ice continues to melt at rapid rates in the Arctic, polar bears are unable to hunt seals, their main source of prey. With no other genuine food sources, bears will starve and eventually die as they struggle to eat and maintain enough energy to find alternative sources. A report by NASA found that temperatures in the Arctic have risen at twice the amount as the rest of the planet. Rod Downie, Chief Advisor of Polar Regions at WWF said: “Climate change is causing sea ice to thaw earlier in the year and freeze later, which means polar bears are spending longer onshore, where they stray into villages, attracted by the smell of food. WWF has helped establish polar bear patrols and non-lethal deterrents in communities across the Arctic to help keep both bears and people, safe. These conflicts are becoming commonplace and the only long-term solution is to halt climate change.” Whilst climate change is not the only reason that polar bear numbers are decreasing – they’re biggest reason why their numbers have fallen an estimated 40% in some areas in just nine years.
Like many wild animals, polar bears are another that suffer immensely from human hunting. Many cases are due to so-called trophy hunting and many are also from native villagers who kill bears for food, clothes or income itself. The lack of ice, in comparison to previous years, means there are now more and easier routes through the sea for people to hunt and advanced transport like snowmobiles allow hunters to access bear habitats faster than ever before. Hunting for sport is still a major issue, but the majority of polar bears that are directly killed by humans are by indigenous tribes throughout Canada and the Northern Hemisphere. Between 500-600 bears are killed each year by authorised Inuit people in Canada; the only country that legally allows polar bear hunting, with trophy hunters also adding to these every year too. Most of the bears killed are then used for their pelt – their body exterior of both fur and skin, and then sold for figures in the region of $5,000. Although hunting isn’t the biggest cause of polar bear numbers declining, it is a major reason why their numbers have continuously dropped.
Studies from the 1980s have shown that polar bears are exposed to a host of chemicals including chlorine compounds like polychlorinated biphenyls. Although some of these chemicals are less frequently circulated through the Arctic due to legislation banning them in many countries, as the top predator in their food chain, polar bears are at risk of digesting a host of these pollutants. When the likes of fish and seals pass them on through the chain, it is believed that these pollutants weaken bears’ immune systems and put them at a greater risk of developing certain illnesses, passing the pollutants onto their cubs too. Fortunately, most polar bears have a stronger immune system than many other animals and are able to handle the pollution in their blood for a longer period of time. However, the sustainability of bears being able to resist some of these toxins isn’t long-term. Some studies have found that pollution can actually affect the density of some bones in bears, most notably their reproductive system. If polar bears are therefore unable to mate, then their numbers are only going to decrease. By also having less bears in a pack, they are also going to be less successful now in hunting prey if the size of their pack doesn’t increase.
As more and more ice continues to melt, there is a lot more opportunity for new trade routes to form throughout the Arctic and its surrounding areas. This increases the risk of oil spills and a host of chemicals being put in the areas that bears live due to the increase in ships, and these will ultimately leave them exposed to a host of diseases from pollutants and oil spills. As more mining also occurs as a result, this affects bears’ habitats because it leaves them at risk of being destroyed and damaged. With more opportunities for humans to travel to their homes, this can cause human-animal conflict. Such powerful and strong animals, polar bears are a major attraction for people visiting the Arctic but their lives could be ended very quickly if they suddenly interact with humans that puts people at risk of being injured.