NOTE: This is a guest blog post from Naomi Rose, Ph.D., the senior scientist for Humane Society International. She is a marine mammal biologist, who has been advocating for increased protection for polar bears for more than 18 years.
Polar bears are the mighty kings of the Arctic. They are nature’s top land predator and have nothing to fear. Except for the melting ice beneath their massive paws – and a hunter’s bullet.
Graphic images in the media of the great white bear precariously perched on the last chunk of a melting iceberg, of drowned bears, of cannibalized carcasses of bear cubs (eaten by hungry males) – all of these punch home the message that the Arctic is already feeling the heat of climate change.
Polar bears depend primarily on ringed seals as prey and cannot find or capture them without a solid platform of sea ice beneath their feet. As the ice recedes farther, forms later, and melts sooner each year – predicted to disappear altogether in summer within the next few years – polar bears, particularly in the more southern populations, are facing starvation. These bears are having fewer cubs and the cubs that are born are suffering much higher mortality. It is only a matter of time before other populations start showing these impacts as well.
The irony is, even as climate change threatens the very survival of the species – leading to a U.S. government decision to list the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2008 – hunters continue to kill bears, not only for subsistence in the US, Greenland, and Canada, but also for sport and commercial trade in Canada.
The sport hunt is by far the most ethically troubling. Sport hunting has declined since the ESA listing, because American hunters (the largest demographic among sport hunters targeting polar bears) can no longer import their trophies into the US. Nevertheless, the federal and territorial governments in Canada continue to allow this purely recreational killing to continue. In addition, the products and parts of as many as 300 bears enter the international market every year, for items such as bear skin rugs.
That may not seem like such a large number, but there are at most only 15,000 bears in Canada, meaning 2% a year are being killed for commercial trade, with dozens more killed frivolously for sport. For a top predator with a low birth rate and a strong reliance on high adult survivorship to maintain its numbers, these are dangerously high numbers, especially given the stress the bears already face from climate change. Shooting them for sport and trade is simply unacceptable.
Recently, some of the polar bear quotas in Canada have actually been increased, even as populations are declining. This cannot be allowed to continue. Canada must give polar bears every chance to survive the coming meltdown of the Arctic. The unnecessary killing of this magnificent animal must end, before it’s too late.
Humane Society International is one of the only international animal protection organizations in the world working to protect all animals–including animals in laboratories, farm animals, companion animals, and wildlife–and our record of achievement demonstrates our dedication and effectiveness.
Photo courtesy of HSI.