Polar bears have no natural predators other than humans. The Inuit (Eskimos) have hunted polar bears for their pelts for centuries. The call the animals nanuk, a word that conveys a great deal of respect. In the 18th century, scientists named the bear Ursus maritimus ("sea bear"). [Source: John Eliot, National Geographic, January, 1998; Thor Larsen, National Geographic. April 1971 ☻]

Polar bears were a prize possession of medieval kings in Europe and their white fur was treasured as far away as Egypt. In Norway polar bear pelts are spread before altars at cathedrals to keep the clerics feet warm while they are celebrating mass.☻

On playing dead before a polar bear, Edward Nelson wrote in Smithsonian in 1982, "One of the men heard a bear approaching over the frosty snow, and having no weapon but a small knife, the bear being between him and the shore, he threw himself upon his back on the ice and waited. The bear came up, smelled about the man from head to foot, finally pressed his cold nose against the man's lips and nose and sniffed several times' each time, the terrified Eskimo held his breath until, as he afterwards said, his lungs nearly burst."

Richard Davids had himself placed in a cage among polar bears, sort of like a tourist in a shark cage. He wrote, "They didn't seem to consider me a possible meal; rather they seemed eager for companionship." One put his nose up the cage, "When I tapped his nose he quickly withdrew and gave me what looked like a hurt look, as if I had betrayed him." Another lay down next to the cage like a lap dog and went to sleep.

There are now so many polar bears on some of the Svalbard islands that tourists are advised to carry guns. After Norway banned the hunting of polar bears in 1973, their population doubled to 2,000 with a few years. In the 1990s, tourists with no weapons training could rent a rifle for about $10 a day. The guns made local people nervous. One biologist told AP, "The odds of getting shot by a tourist are now greater than of getting attacked by a bear.'

Humans Hunting Polar Bear

In the old days polar bears were hunted with spears, lances and dogs. The hunt was a test of manhood, a view kept alive by Eskimos even with modern weapons. In Thule, Greenland, a man wasn't considered worthy of marrying the daughter of a great hunter until he has killed his first bear. Through the 1970s more polar bears were killed in Western countries than in Russia, where polar bears have been protected since 1956.☻

In an attempt to keep trophy hunters from shooting studied bears in the 1970s, scientists spray painted huge numbers on the side of the animals. In spite of this, of 103 animals tagged over a third were killed by hunters within a couple of years.☻

In the 1990s, the Canadian government allowed 500 of country's polar bears to be hunted every year. Alaska allowed 100 a year. Hunts are also regulated in Norway, Greenland and Russia. After the break up of the Soviet Union, there was reported to be a surge in poaching of polar bears in the Chukchi sea region between Alaska and Siberia.

Polar Bear Research

When polar bears were studied in the 1970s some some were caught as they approached the research ship out of curiosity. Others were lured with the scent of burning seal blubber. Others still were tracked down with dogs. The most successful method of catching them was using a box-like device in which a bear was shot with a tranquilizing dart from a firing weapon, triggered when the bear took a piece of bait. A lethal version of this contraption took two thirds of the bears killed in the Norwegian Arctic until they were outlawed in 1970.☻

Polar bears are tranquilized with seven cubic centimeter of Telazol. When polar bears were first studied in the wild sometimes the animals were shot with tranquilizing darts which was fine unless they jumped in the water. If this happened a noose was wrapped around the bear and its head was held above water so it wouldn't drown. In one Norwegian study, of 103 bear captured this way only one was lost to sea.☻

While a polar bear is tranquilized, scientists collect blood and fat samples, extract a vestigial tooth to determine age, attach ear tags and measure the bears's temperature, length, girth and weight with an large aluminum tripod. On a rare occasion the bears wake up unexpectedly.

Tracking a bear coast about $2,000 per animal in the 1990s. Scientist at that time were still not sure where males went in the winter because radio collars didn’t stay on their necks and the batteries in ear transmitters wore out after a month. At that time there were plans to mount small video cameras on bear collars that transmitted images via radio signals.

Endangered Polar Bears

There are 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears in 19 populations across the Arctic, with the animal found in Canada, Greenland, Alaska, Norway and Russia. They are listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as “vulnerable” but are listed an an endangered species in the United States. The main threat they face is loss of their icy environment as a result of climate change, though they are also at risk from pollutants in the Arctic ecosystem and the potential exploitation of the region for oil. [Source: Sky News]

Polar bears are not considered endangered but they are suffering as a result of global warming melting the ice which is so vital to their survival. Protection and hunting prohibitions have lead a an increase in polar bear populations. Their low reproductive rates and large ranges make them vulnerable to threats from human beings.

A conservation program that began in the 1960s when bears became overhunted is credited with saving the bears from becoming endangered. Norway and the Soviet Union banned the hunting of polar bears. Canada introduced a quota system and the United States and Denmark (for Greenland) allowed only indigenous people to hunt the bears. Canada and Norway have created reserves to protect bear habitats and denning areas.

Polar bears have become poster animals for the environmental movement. The WWF has called them “an ambassador for Arctic nature and a symbol of the of the impacts that global warning is increasingly having around the world.”

Polar Bears and Pollution

Polar bears are surprisingly being threatened by pollution even though there are virtually no pollution sources in their ranges. Scientists have found chemicals like DDT, PCBs and organochlorines in bear fat and urine that originated in Asia, Europe and North America and were passed on the bears through the food chain, increasing a billionfold in concentrations as they went up.

High concentrations of DDT have been found in polar bears even though the chemical is only used in a handful of places to fight malatia. Deformed male polar cubs born with female genitalia and partial penises found in Svakbard are believed to be victims of toxins, perhaps DDT or PCBs. Scientists base this theory on the fact the condition has been found among several cubs in Svalbard, which is relatively close to Europe, but is rare among cubs in remote regions of the Arctic.

Scientists have also found small amounts of BDEs—flame retardants found in televisions, computers and toys—in bears. The amounts are minute and don’t pose a health problem to the bears. What is alarming is that they are there at all. The nearest sources of these chemicals is more than 1,100 kilometers away. It is worrisome that they some how made their way to the Arctic.

Polar Bears and Global Warming

Polar bears are suffering as a result of global warming, which has caused the premature melting of ice platforms in some places used by bears to hunt seal, their primary source of food. When the ice melts, bear go ashore and fast. Studies have shown that in some places the ice is melting weeks earlier than it did years before. The thickness of Arctic ice has decreased from 10.2 feet in 1976 to 4.4 feet in 2000. The area covered by sea ice declined about 6 percent from 1978 to 1995.

As a result of melting Arctic ice polar bears are coming ashore earlier, losing weight and having fewer cubs. By the end of the 21st century the ice platforms that polar use are expected to literally melt away. If this does indeed happen, bears will be faced with the choice of staying on land, where they risk starvation, or swimming out in the sea to find ice to hunt off food, in the process using up a lot of energy, and losing weight, which would affect their reproductive capability. To do this mothers would have to leave their cubs behind and they would almost certainly die.

The number of polar bears in the western Hudson has fell 17 percent from 1,200 to less than 1,000 between the mid 1990s and the mid 2000s. Ice is melting there three weeks earlier than it did before and those three weeks was traditionally a time when the bears gorged on seal pups. Polar bears in the Hudson Bay are having fewer cubs. Global warming and the earlier spring ice break up are believed to be involved. Since the ice has started melting earlier around the Hudson bay, scientist say that newborn cubs have a lower body weight and are in poorer health than cubs born when there was more ice and that older cubs stay with their mothers longer. One study linked shrinking polar bear penises with global warming.

In May 2004, polar bears were stranded on remote “Bear Island,” which is part of Norway, by rapidly melting ice. There was nothing really on the island for the bears to eat and calls were made tor rescue them.

Some Scientists estimate the number of polar bears will decline by 30 percent in the next 35 to 50 years. Some say this an exaggeration. While the bears have declined in some places. There number shave increased in others. In Canada, home to most of the world’s polar bears, the numbers increased by 20 percent in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The numbers increased because of more restrictions on hunting. Some think that global warming may have played a role in the increase. There was a period 120,000 years ago when the Earth was significantly warmer than it is now and polar bears managed to survive that.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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