Voices for Biodiversity

Saving the Behemoth of the Ice: The Polar Bear

“The melting ice is the hourglass by which we measure  
the remainder of our time on this earth.”  
                                                                                    —Lysander Christo 

With the melting of the world’s ice, the future of the greatest land predator on earth — the polar bear — is very much in jeopardy. While climate change and diminishing pack ice are definitely a long-term threat, on a recent trip to Svalbard in the Norwegian Arctic, my wife Marie, my son Lysander and I discovered that trophy hunting is posing an immediate, constant threat to the polar bear population. 

Norwegian photographer Ole J Liodden brought the crisis of trophy hunting to my attention in his book Polar Bears and Humans. He has been examining the effects of legal and illegal hunting for years, and urges us to consider the impact of taking out the strongest, healthiest males who can breed and who cope better with climate change. This “reverse evolution” or human-induced selection is impairing the genetic pool of trophy species all over the world, including bighorn sheep, lions and tigers. Trophy hunting needs to be eradicated if we hope to have large animals on earth in the future.

Trophy hunting in Canada has resulted in the killing of 900 polar bears for fur every year from 1963 to 2016. That’s almost 50,000 individuals — more than double the current estimated surviving total on earth. 

Morten Jorgensen states unequivocally in his polemical book Polar Bears on the Edge that there is no way to establish exactly how many bears there are in the 19 so-called sub populations across the Arctic. Polar bears migrate, so all we have are “qualified guesses” of how many remain. Some scientists say 20,000 to 30,000, but there may be only 15,000 or less. 

Polar bears have been turned into a commodity, and today’s hunts are carried out on snow mobiles with high-powered rifles. Of all the guiding spirits for the Inuit, the polar bear was considered the most powerful, a far cry from those who would sell a polar bear’s skin for somewhere between US$11 and $19 thousand. Who will ensure their future when they are now seen as a revenue source for their furs? Polar bears should not have to pay with their lives — nor the species’ very existence. 

I had the privilege of meeting Elder and wildlife officer Erling Madsen in Ittoqqoortoormitt in eastern Greenland. He has been honored by Polar Bears International for tending the local bear population and making sure that polar bears do not endanger the children of his village. I asked him what would happen to us as humans if we lost the polar bear. He paused in deep consideration before answering: “We would lose our souls.”  

The international agreement of 1973 to protect the polar bear is approaching its 50th anniversary. Phasing out polar bear hunting would be a remarkable way to celebrate the future of this incredible species. They could be gone forever within a generation. Scientists and conservationists have to step up and dictate the way forward, not trophy hunters and marketers.  

If this incomparable monarch of the north is to survive, a total ban on killing them for their furs needs to be implemented internationally and now. It is a travesty that this species is only considered threatened when it should be considered endangered with extinction. It’s time for all humans to come to the polar bears’ rescue before it’s too late. 

It’s time for the creation of Arctic sanctuaries devoid of industrial development, extraction activities and transportation routes to ensure true refuge for polar bears and other wildlife. There needs to be sufficient funds to halt poaching, ensure enforcement, educate on polar bear behavior and ecology, fund polar bear guard patrols, implement and enforce non-lethal deterrence methods and ensure relevant science.  

All over the world, polar bears, lions, tigers and even marine predators have been turned into commodities for the bloodlust of commercial interests. Their world and ours is already sinking beneath our feet. 

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