Hand-Feeding Polar Bears Could Be the Next Big Conservation Industry

Experts urge nations to devise ‘polar bear protection plans’ before the animals run out of food and are rendered extinct.
Polar bears' soft coats are used to make rugs, but that's just one of the threats they face. (Photo: Wayne R Bilenduke/Getty Images)
Feb 9, 2013· 2 MIN READ
The director of the Public Trust Project, Alison Fairbrother has written for Grist and Politics Daily, among others.

Hand-feeding a polar bear mamma and her cubs sounds like an animal lover’s dream. Unfortunately, according to some experts, the time may soon come when polar bears have no other means of survival.

In a paper released this week, a council of the world’s leading bear researchers urged countries with polar bear populations to develop crisis management plans for the endangered species, which they fear will be decimated by the loss of sea ice in their northerly homes. Addressed in that paper are the U.S., Canada, Russia, Norway and Greenland.

The proposal, laid out in Conservation Letters, represents the most extreme warnings thus far about what it will take to save one of the world’s most majestic and endangered creatures.

The researchers propose supplemental feedings by humans in order to keep polar bears from starving when sea ice retreats. In addition, they recommend the possible relocation of southern populations to the High Arctic in order to increase the animals’ odds of survival.

Zak Smith, an attorney at the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), tells TakePart that threats to the bears’ existence have reached critical mass. “Some of the preeminent polar bear scientists in the world are saying as loudly as they can that there is a crisis for polar bears and that this crisis is about the decisions that we make now,” he says. “These decisions will determine whether polar bears exist in 100 years, if they will go extinct or not.”

There are only 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears left in the world. The United States Geological Survey has predicted the loss of two-thirds of the world’s polar bears by 2050.

Climate change represents a huge threat to the bears. Arctic ice is melting even faster than scientists had predicted. Polar bears use that sea ice as a perch to hunt seals, often living off of fat reserves when the seasonal ice retreats. However, with shorelines eroding and temperatures rising, obtaining enough food will be an increasing challenge.

Though depleting sea ice is a serious problem, it’s not the only threat to polar bear survival. Zak Smith tells TakePart that another danger is the international trade in polar bear parts. Unbelievably, some nations still allow the trading of polar bear heads, skins, teeth and claws.

Although killing and selling polar bears is illegal in the U.S., Canada kills about 600 bears each year. Approximately 400 of them end up on the international market, where hunters and tradesmen can purchase them to mount on walls or skin into rugs.

At the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) next month, the U.S. and other nations will be pushing to end that polar bear trade.

Of particular concern to the U.S., is that the Canadian Territory of Nunavut recently tripled its polar-bear-hunting quota for the Western Hudson Bay, despite opposition from scientific researchers and the Canadian federal government. The number of polar bear hides offered at auction in Canada tripled between 2007 and 2012.

But the European Union, representing 27 votes on the CITES commission, remains undecided whether it will side with the Canadian territory or champion the polar bear cause alongside the U.S.

The NRDC is encouraging concerned citizens to call on the E.U. to rally for the bears. Readers who want to help can sign the NRDC petition demanding increased protection for the animals and further limitations on polar-bear-hunting quotas.

“We know that polar bears are going to be decimated by climate change. Ending the international trade in polar bear parts is about taking all of the steps we can to reduce stressors,” Smith tells TakePart. “One of the things that the CITES listing attempts to do is to remove the idea that the price of polar bear rugs is relevant when these experts are saying that we are going to have to hand deliver [food] to these populations.”

Will you sign the petition to protect polar bears from being traded for parts? Let us know in the Comments.