V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer
The decline of the polar bear


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Published in the Toronto Sun and Sun Media papers October, 2007.

CHURCHILL, Man. -- The smell of spicy gumbo soup has just hit our visitor's nose. He rises from his prone position and his dark round eyes dart up and down, side to side, trying to suss out the unfamiliar scent.

The smell and clang of cutlery have roused the polar bear to his feet. He takes a few steps, reconsiders, and resumes the lazy position he's assumed for the past few hours: Head resting on paw, sleepy eyes closed.

He's a curious polar bear. Instead of dashing away, he sniffs the monster-truck-like wheels on the tundra buggy and makes inquisitive eye contact with his new company -- about 40 humans who made an unexpected house call.

But it's not this bear's first human encounter.

"He's got an earring and a tattoo," jokes Glenn Hopfner, our Tundra Buggy Adventure guide.

The animal has been tagged and tattooed on the lip, as have most of his bear cousins in western Hudson Bay.

He is one of 19 polar bear populations in the world, 13 of which take up permanent or temporary residence in Canada. His is a face the industrialized world knows well by now: The soft, snowy face held up as the poster-child of climate change.

The most dire predictions project two-thirds of the world's polar bears will disappear altogether by 2050 if sea ice decline continues on its present trajectory. Arctic sea ice is projected to shrink 40% by 2050. Summer sea ice is forecast to disappear altogether by then as well. Sea ice shrank 2.6 million square kilometres more this summer alone than the average melt recorded over the last 25 years. That's equal to six Californias.

Polar bears depend on sea ice to hunt their favourite food -- the ringed seal. It's hard to reconcile the docile, doe-eyed animal below with the predator smashing through ice and grabbing newborn seal pups. Or male polar bears that, when desperate, will resort to cannibalism and eat bear cubs.

"When he looked me in the eye, I could see the desperation there," Hopfner writes in his book Tales from the Tundra. In the 12 years he's been guiding the tour, Hopfner says he has only seen one starving polar bear.

It was a giant bear, his coat hanging over his back like a blanket on a clothesline. Hopfner watched in horror as the bear killed and ate a two-year-old cub while the mother bear sat 30 metres away, watching.

"The mother stayed in the same place for three days as if waiting for her offspring to reappear, during which time all the other bears avoided the area," he recalls. Anecdotally, Hopfner contradicts what scientists are trumpeting as likely extinction.

"I haven't seen a change," he says in the buggy. "I've seen more mothers and cubs and they're in good shape."

Other reports also seem at odds with the parrotted science Mitch Taylor, Nunavut's manager of wildlife, stirred the pot with when he said populations are increasing and polar bears will simply adapt to their new conditions.

But his is a lone voice among an international panel of polar bear specialists at the World Conservation Union who say five populations are on the decline and their health getting poorer.

"They won't adapt and they can't adapt," says Ian Stirling, a Research Scientist Emeritus with Environment Canada who has studied the bears for 37 years. "They don't have enough time."

Polar bears are built on protein, not berries, Stirling says. And they're feeding on seals three weeks less than they were 30 years ago because of earlier spring ice melts that force them ashore.

Critics are also quick to point out Taylor's study was commissioned by an Inuit government which may have its own agenda. If the bears become endangered, a hunting ban could follow and kill livelihoods as well as a million dollar sport hunting industry geared towards American tourists.

"It's not rocket science to note that as the ice goes, so will the bears," Stirling says.

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POLAR BEAR FACTS

·  The current world polar bear population is probably 20,000 to 25,000.

·  They feed mostly on ringed seals, but they also catch bearded seals, harp seals, hooded seals, and harbour seals. Occasionally, they may also kill walruses, belugas or white whales, and narwhals.

·  Male polar bears commonly live to about 25 years of age. Females often live into their late twenties.

·  Males usually weigh from 400-600 kg. Most females weigh 150-250 kg.

·  They can detect seal breathing holes covered by layers of ice and snow 90 cm or more thick and up to a kilometre away. Their eyesight and hearing are probably similar to those of a human

·  The young are born from late November to early January. The most common litter size is twins. Cubs weigh less than one kg.

Source: Hinterland Who's Who



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