Polar bears are perhaps the world’s most famous Arctic predator, known for their distinctive profile, snowy white coat, and remarkable adaptation to an inhospitable environment. The Arctic bears have wandered the Earth for millions of years, withstanding several periods of global warming. However, human-made threats, such as the current period of global warming and unsustainable hunting practices of Europeans, Russians, and Americans over hundreds of years, have endangered the polar bear population.
It’s hard to imagine the total extinction of such resilient creatures, and yet such a dire outcome for the species has become increasingly likely.
Polar bears live in some of the most remote and difficult-to-access regions on the planet. Therefore, accurately estimating their worldwide population is difficult and costly. Today, it is estimated that there are about 22,000 to 31,000 polar bears remaining. Due largely to the ongoing melting of Arctic sea ice, the global population of polar bears is projected to decline by 30% by 2050.
In an email to 24/7 Wall St., Steven C. Amstrup, chief scientist of nonprofit organization Polar Bears International, noted the importance of sea ice to polar bears.
“[Decades of research] has established the basic fact that polar bears can reliably catch their prey only from the surface of Arctic sea ice,” said Amstrup. “This fundamental relationship between ice availability and polar bear foraging ability means wild polar bears will disappear unless we take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that are causing global temperature rise.”
The shrinking of the sea ice has other consequences that also have threatened polar bear populations. For example, as Arctic habitats have become more hospitable to humans, tourists drawn by natural beauty as well as the chance to see polar bears have flocked to the region. Surges in visitation numbers mean more water crafts, which can cause pollution. Also, more contact between the bears and humans frequently results in humans killing the ice bears in self-defense.
In addition to tourism, better access to Arctic territories means more affordable access to the region’s resources. Any development in the area, be it oil extraction, pipelines, and even research facilities, are risks to wildlife. Oil spills are among the greatest threats to polar bears, who spend large amounts of time traversing by sea. Also, as the region’s top predator, bears are exposed to any oil contaminating all animals along the food chain. Such disasters are impossible to avoid entirely, and most countries, including the United States, are nowhere near capable of cleaning up oil in the Arctic.
To bring attention to these issues, conservationists in recent years have celebrated Feb. 27 as International Polar Bear Day. To mark the occasion, and to do our part to raise awareness, 24/7 Wall St. has catalogued 10 of the greatest threats to polar bears and 10 of the ways in which conservationists and other advocates have worked to improve the situation.