Could zoos across the country one day become pseudo Noah’s Arks, safeguarding animals on the brink of extinction? That is one of the goals of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, who is asking the government to change a law that would let them import orphaned polar bear cubs and possibly save the species.
Scientists say that two-thirds of the world’s polar bears are at risk of becoming extinct by 2050 because of climate changes that are melting the sea ice where the animals hunt. A group of AZA officials want the federal government to let them “import orphaned cubs from Canada, so they can be bred in captivity” and keep the species alive.
Currently polar bears cannot be imported into the United States for “public display” under federal law.
Randi Meyerson, chairman of the AZA’s polar bear species survival program thinks it is critical to bring the animals to U.S. zoos and begin to raise a sort of stockpile of polar bears.
“If you don’t build these insurance populations when you have the animals, then its’ too late,” said Meyerson. “We’re planning for something we hope we don’t need.”
This isn’t the first time AZA has helped save endangered animals. Both the California condor and the Mexican wolf were bred in zoos and then returned to the wild.
However, circumstances to help the polar bears are more complicated because the melting sea ice would prevent them from being set free in the future; a critical part of the rules that allow endangered animals to enter U.S. zoos.
Robert Gabel with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service explained, “We’d have to show that an import would either stabilize or increase the wild population of polar bears. It’s difficult to show how an import would accomplish that.”
Basically the radical plan would be a “worst-case scenario,” where a small group of polar bears would survive in captivity as representation of the entire species.
Even Robert Buchanan, president of Polar Bears International is onboard with the plan, although his primary goal is to cut “heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions” in the atmosphere caused by burning fossil fuel and causing the Arctic waters to warm at twice the normal rate.
He thinks having the polar bears on display would be a great way to bring public awareness to the problem.
It is estimated there are 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears worldwide with 3,500 living in Alaska, Canada and Russia. There are only 64 polar bears in accredited zoos in the U.S. The St. Louis Zoo has a new $20 million polar bear exhibit where they hoped to have 3 to 5 bears living by 2017. Because of the import law they haven’t been able to fill the spots and would gladly participate in a breeding program for orphaned bears.
“Polar bears are simply the first species where we have to get it right,” said Jeffrey Bonner, St. Louis Zoo president and CEO.