Polar bears

On thin ice

Print edition : August 07, 2015

The polar bear. Climate change poses a real threat to its habitat, the ice sheets in the Arctic.

Depletion or Arctic ice has left the polar bear with far fewer seals to hunt for food. Photo: Jon Langeland

The polar bear is listed as vulnerable by the IUCN and its numbers have declined in many parts of the Arctic. Photo: Jon Langeland

A bear yawning, one of Langeland's iconic pictures of the animal. Photo: Jon Langeland

Finishing off the carcass of a seal.

Long periods without ice force the polar bear to seek even a carcass. Photo: Jon Langeland

The restricted availablity of seals has led to nutritional problems, infant mortality and even affected the bears' reproductive capacity. Photo: Jon Langeland

The polar bear is a unique and highly evolved predator, yet it is vulnerable because it is highly evolved to a specific ecological requirement. Here, after preying on a seal. Photo: Jon Langeland

Scientists say there has been a depletion of at least 14 per cent of Arctic ice since 1979. Such melting of sea ice has the potential to threaten the very existence of the polar bear. Photo: Jon Langeland

They need a platform of ice to live and hunt seals because they cannot swim long distances. Photo: Jon Langeland

The substratum is the ideal breeding ground for seals, the bear's prey.

After a swim. Photo: Jon Langeland

There are an estimated 25,000 polar bears in the Arctic, and at the current rate of global warming, two-thirds of them could be gone by mid-century. Photo: Jon Langeland

Will the world wake up to the dangers of the fragmentation of Arctic ice, and save the polar bear? Photo: Jon Langeland

Jon Langeland shooting a seal. Photo: By Special Arrrangement

Studies conducted by the Norwegian Polar Institute point to the far-reaching effects of global warming on the habitat and preying habits of the polar bear.

“HAVE YOU seen a polar bear, a formidable predator in the Arctic wilderness, going hungry?” Dr Jon Langeland asked, drawing my attention to a photograph on his laptop from among the thousands in his collection. It showed a polar bear, its face stained with blood from the remains of a seal it was dragging with its teeth.

It is rare to see bears feed on dead meat. “The bear is hungry. I have been on Arctic cruises seven times since 2004 and have watched polar bears closely. I feel it is in troubled waters. When it is hungry, it will even seek a carcass to eat,” Langeland said. The medical practitioner’s passion for wildlife photography has taken him to different continents in the past 30 years. This writer met him in March at the Ranthambhore National Park in Rajasthan, where he had come to shoot tigers.

Langeland stumbled on the rare sight in July 2013 during an Arctic cruise in Spitsbergen, a large island in the Svalbard archipelago in Norway, where the sun never sets in summer. The polar bear, which the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has listed as a vulnerable species, is one of the main tourist attractions in Svalbard.

Its survival is under threat further because of global warming. Scientists say that there has been a depletion of at least 14 per cent of Arctic ice since 1979, posing a threat to polar bears inhabiting Arctic countries like Russia, Norway, Greenland, Canada, the United States and Finland. The polar bear generally hunts ringed seals. Bears cannot swim long distances and need a platform of ice to hunt seals, which use the small holes in the ice sheets to breathe. Global warming and climate change have resulted in the fragmentation of ice. This has destroyed the habitat of the seals, whose numbers are dwindling. Without enough seals to eat, bears wander to terrestrial areas in search of berries, birds’ eggs or plants. There have been reports of polar bears intruding into human settlements and attacking people.

The restricted availability of seals has caused nutritional problems and infant mortality among bears. Their reproducing capacity has been affected. A saying in that part of the world goes like this: “No ice means no seals, no seals means no bears.”

Changing patterns

Studies conducted by the Norwegian Polar Institute point to the far-reaching effects of global warming on the habitat and preying habits of the polar bear. In August 2014, scientists were startled by the discovery of a bear eating the carcass of a white-beaked dolphin trapped to death by ice blocks in Svalbard. It was for the first time that such an incident was reported, though bears had eaten the beluga whale and the narwhal, a marine mammal. “That is a pointer. Long periods without ice may force the polar bear to look for alternative or terrestrial food,” says Jon Aars, a senior scientist at the institute.

In July 2012, in the Russian side of the Arctic, Jenny Ross, a California-based journalist and wildlife photographer specialising in climate change and polar bears, saw a male cub negotiating a rocky cliff for birds’ eggs. It was marooned on land and was trying perilously to get a foothold on the cliffside. In July 2010, in Svalbard, she saw an instance of cannibalism by a polar bear, and it still gives her the creeps. While this is not without precedent, such cases are believed to be very rare. One of the reasons for this behaviour, wildlife experts believe, is the loss of prey because of the fragmentation of ice.

Conservation efforts

“Life on Thin Ice” is a project by Jenny Ross to convey the overriding significance of climate change and to motivate appropriate action “to address the causes and mitigate the effects of atmospheric warming”. “I use photography as a powerful tool to communicate with people on the very serious issues connected with global warming in the Arctic in order to make the people intellectually and emotionally attached to it. Biologists are unanimous when they say that the polar bear is a unique and highly evolved predator, yet vulnerable because it is highly evolved to a specific ecological requirement,” she said.

Polar bears need ice absolutely to survive, said Dr Ian Stirling, former Professor of Biology, University of Alberta, Canada. He has spent nearly 40 years observing and researching the animal. His Polar Bears: The Natural History of a Threatened Species has won international acclaim.

Dr Andrew Derocher of Canada is another authority on bears. “We now see less and less ice in the Arctic as a whole. This is very similar to habitat changes of many other species around the globe. For polar bears, challenge comes from ice melting,” he says.

According to him, ice melting in the Arctic has two grave consequences: (1) it shortens the spring period when bears do most of their hunting; and (2) it increases the time bears are forced to live on land without access to prey. If global warming continues at this alarming rate year after year, scientists predict, some of the Arctic areas will cease to be bear areas.

“By the best estimate, two-thirds of the polar bears would be gone by the mid-century with the current warming rate,” said Derocher. There are an estimated 25,000 bears in the Arctic.

According to some studies, the number of polar bears has already declined in many parts of the Arctic. Of the 19 subpopulations of polar bears, nine are badly affected. In Canada, the number of bears has declined from 1,194 to 806 in about two decades.

Climate change has already sounded the death knell for the walrus, the bowhead whale, the narwhal, the beluga whale and many other species. Experts say sea ice is like soil in the forest. Devoid of soil, the forest would be in peril. Without ice, they say, the Arctic ecology will also be imperilled.

The only way to get the genetic diversity and habitats back is to address the issue of global warming. “We need to cut greenhouse gas emissions,” says Dag Vongraven, Chair of the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group. “It requires large-scale policy decisions by different nations.”

Or, future generations may only have photographs to know what the polar bear and other such animals looked like.

G. Shaheed is Chief of the Legal and Environment News Bureau of Mathrubhumi in Kochi. Dr Jon Langeland is a leading medical doctor based in Oslo.