This article provides a brief overview of the threats facing polar bears.
Polar bears are the largest land carnivores in North America. In the wild, they are only found in the Arctic, in the United States, Russia, Greenland, Canada, and Norway. The worldwide population is estimated to be around 22,000-27,000 individuals.
There exist several threats that risk leading to the eradication of polar bears by the year 2100. The most important of these threats are climate change, oil spills, loss and disturbance of habitat through development and tourism, pollution, hunting and self-defense killing, cannibalism, and capture of polar bears for public display in zoos. Laws have been created to help counter these threats at all levels of government in the five Arctic states.
Of these threats, climate change is the most important. With the current melting trends, the polar bear’s habitat is quickly disappearing. Consequently, the polar bear is having difficulty finding suitable areas to make its den and finding food. Oils spills are also a problem given that polar bears swim in the arctic waters. When in contact with the oil, polar bears often ingest the oil when licking to clean themselves, subsequently becoming sick and sometimes dying. Development in the north also leads to loss of habitat and increases marine traffic, another hazard for the swimming polar bear. Pollutants from our cars and industry can also lead to severe health problems and even death of the polar bear.
Hunting and self-defense killing is the second most important threat to polar bears. Generally, polar bears are killed for food; their body part are also used to make pelts, clothing, and handicrafts. Although polar bear cannibalism is not very common, it does happen and remains a notable factor in polar bear population decline. Tourism in the arctic may affect polar bears by disrupting and destroying their habitat and capturing polar bears for public display, inevitably leads to reducing the population of wild polar bears.
The legal framework surrounding polar bears is extremely complex. Climate change is a worldwide problem. Generally, different countries have adopted tools such as regulations reducing vehicle emissions and international agreements, such as the Kyoto Protocol . Oil and other development are regulated by creating standards for construction of oil rigs and tankers and establishing protocols for cleanup in case of oil spills. Also, as a means to prevent development, several countries have created parks. Pollution is a problem of global scope and its regulation is very difficult. It is typically regulated at the international level through agreements and treaties. Hunting can be legal or not (poaching). Most states only permit native people to hunt polar bears, but Canada is the only Arctic state that allows non-native people to hunt polar bears. Killing a polar bear in self-defense is permissible when one’s life or another’s is threatened.
Hunting is regulated by enacting such laws that, for example, set quotas on how many polar bears can be hunted, and restrict the hunt to bears of a certain age or sex. On the other hand, it is not possible to control cannibalism by use of legislation. Governments have sought to diminish the impact of tourism in the Arctic on polar bears by limiting where tourists can go, what they can do, and by providing tourist with guidelines of how they should act should they encounter a polar bear. Finally, legislation governing the capture of polar bears for public display generally limits who can take the polar bear, how many polar bears can be taken, and the quality of life of the polar bear once in captivity.
The principal threat to the survival of polar bears is climate change. With climate change, the polar bear’s environment is changing drastically, and the question remains whether polar bears will be able to adapt. It is certain that a change is needed in the current legislative regime as it is certainly not the most efficient means of managing one of the world’s most unique and majestic animals.