Polar Bears: Left Out in the Cold

5 Feb 2013

The polar bear (Ursus maritimus) is a marine mammal that lives off of the other marine mammals inhabiting the artic ice pack, and the surrounding ice flows and ocean. The polar bear is thus an excellent swimmer. The artic ice pack, home of the polar bear, is disappearing. The vulnerability and mortal risks faced by polar bears are increasing.

The polar bear, beloved by many, has become the martyr employed by governments and NGOs to symbolize the fight against global warming. It has become a fundraising symbol and a top-model.

However when the moment arrives to act concerning the safety of the polar bear, silence prevails. The so-called friends of the polar bear seem to forget the previous and immediate threats tormenting the species:

-The bloodthirsty international trade of polar bears is flourishing. Claw, furs, jaw, skulls, teeth, taxidermy and living bears are snatched up by the highest bidder. In the heart of Paris, a taxidermy polar bear cub sells for 20,000 euros, an adult for 40,000 euros, and a polar bear hide for 18,000 euros. Each year, over 800 bears are killed to supply such sales. The total population of polar bears across the world is estimated to be between 20,000 and 25,000 divided into 19 known populations that reside on about 5 million square miles in winter and about 1 million square miles in summer. Demographic statistics are deficient, imprecise, outdated for at least 7 of the sub-populations including 4 sub-populations that have never been studied. With legal trade comes illegal trade, intensified by the cravings from Asia and the Middle East for animal-derived decorations. Poaching might best be found in the Bering Sea in Russia.

-In addition to being hunted, polar bears are also exposed to chemical pollution. At the top of the Arctic food chain, their prey are contaminated and polluted, causing the bears to ingest persistent organic pollutants (POPs), which accumulate in their muscle, blubber and blood. International scholarship has been abundant on this subject since 1980. In 2010, a new Danish study published in Environment International confirmed that polar bears, out of all other mammals including humans, possess the highest levels of contamination from the chemical residues from human activity and northern forest fires. Danish veterinary scientists declare that the daily amounts of PCBs, lindane, and bromine compounds ingested by polar bears far exceeds the safe limits recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) for humans. They also noted the increase of mercury and fluoride levels. “These chemical amounts can lead to a decline in the polar bear population.” Due to the chemical accumulation in their bodies, polar bears have become unwillingly the biological trashcans of the Arctic.

-Noise pollution joins with chemical pollution to harm polar bear populations. Pregnant females, hibernating in dens from October to December, can be forced to flee by the noise that penetrates their snowy den walls. If driven to abandon their dens, they risk abandoning their cubs, who are completely dependent on their mothers. This could have serious consequences for a mortality rate of young polar bears already at 70%. In the Arctic, acoustic disturbance is amplified and multiplied: helicopters, drilling, seismic research, mining, ice breaking ships, all terrain vehicles, base camps…

-Human activities generate further problems for the tranquility of the life of polar bears and other Arctic fauna. The growing maritime traffic of merchant ships and cruise ships, the “polar bear watching”, in addition to global warming, are increasing the spread of pathogenic germs. These pathogens cause skin deseases in seal, walrus, and polar bear populations. Furthermore, the increasing cultural integration of Ursus maritimus into human environments, in the form of searching for food in the garbage cans near and inside towns or by coming into contact with the toxic waste washed up on Arctic coasts, leads to fatal food poisoning.

-The ultimate nightmare remains oil spills. While the risks of its occurrence are growing, the means of containing and treating it are weak, if not inexistent, in the Arctic. Oil spills are catastrophic for all links of the food chain, especially the polar bears at the top.

The United States will present a proposal in Bangkok in March 2013 to include polar bears in Appendix I of CITES, Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. Appendix I bans international trade, making the inclusion of the polar bears in Appendix I the best possible immediate action for reducing the number of risks faced by the species. The 27 countries of the European Union voted against this proposition when it was presented at the Doha conference in Qatar in March 2010. The position of the E.U. will be discussed tomorrow in Brussels. Yet France still hesitates, remaining in abstention. Of all the polar bear range states, only Russia supports the U.S.. Canada, Greenland via Denmark, and Norway are all against the U.S. proposal.

Robin des Bois is a member of the French Coalition for Polar Bears consisting of 13 environmental organizations.






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