Bare Paws: Mass Migration or a World Without Polar Bears

Written by Naomi Lai

The majestic polar bear, the world’s largest land carnivore and Arctic icon, could soon become extinct due to climate change. Its natural territory stretches across the tundra of Canada, Alaska, Greenland, Norway and Russia, which are now experiencing rising sea levels and a reduction of ice floats. This is where the animals live, raise their young and hunt for food. Without this habitat to thrive in, the wild global population has already dropped and is estimated to be as low as 22,000. If this continues, the polar bear is in serious danger of extinction within the next few decades. Some environmentalists have therefore proposed an unusual solution: relocate the species to the southern hemisphere.

Could it Work?  

The northern hemisphere is poised to become 2 degrees warmer by 2050, which would lead to mass ecological change, and is expected to destroy the polar bear’s natural habitat. By contrast, the uninhabited southernmost continent of Antarctica is a vastly unspoiled; shielded from the encroachment of ozone depletion and greenhouse gases that human industrialism has created. Currently, the only land animals to exist in Antarctica are several species of penguin. This isolation away from predators has allowed them to flourish, with colony populations in the millions. With such an abundance of food, it may seem that the polar bear would fit right into this new habitat. However, there are inherent risks. Infiltration of a foreign species into a new ecosystem brings the risk of the endemic inhabitants being wiped out; potentially creating a larger issue than what is faced with the extinction of polar bears. While this may not happen immediately, penguin numbers would undoubtedly decline if polar bears overindulge, and in the absence of nourishment, the polar bear population would subsequently crash as well.

History repeating itself? / A Look Back / Tried and Tested

An example of this occurred in 1935, when Australia introduced the American cane toad to their island in an attempt to control the population of some beetle species. While the number of beetles did indeed decline, the cane toad simultaneously caused a series of other issues. Their poison is so harmful to other animals that many native frog populations have been depleted to the point of endangerment, and even household pets have suffered in some cases.
Similarly, the mongoose was brought from India to Hawaii in order to help control rats among the sugar cane fields in 1883. Again, this had a vastly negative impact on the rest of the ecosystem, and many species of insects, birds, and other animals saw a drastic drop in population.

Transition

The polar bear is uniquely adapted for its environment in the North Pole and may not make the transition to The South well. Polar bears eat a high fat diet and have physiological adaptations to permit them to process this sustenance. If polar bears were to become extinct or move locations, the number of inhabitants in walruses, seals, whales, reindeer, rodents, and birds would be affected too. The Arctic Circle does not have much vegetation to begin with so if there were no predators to diminish the herbivore populace, the vegetation would go to zero, in turn wiping out herbivores or compelling them to migrate to other habitats where they can survive.

What Can We Do?

So what can be done instead to try to save the species? Since 1972 environmental activism (mainly spearheaded by the World Wildlife Fund) has sought to advocate for several measures governments can take on for the preservation of polar bears in their natural habitat. These include:

  • Protecting critical habitat
  • Reducing industrial impacts
  • Creating safer communities
  • Promoting sustainable tourism
  • Ensuring sustainable hunting
  • Supporting polar bear research

As of 2015, The WWF has pressured the five arctic nations that polar bears inhabit (Canada, USA, Norway, Greenland, and Russia) to formally recognize the need to act swiftly and curb the population decline through the Circumpolar Action Plan. WWF-Canada President and CEO David Miller has said: "The loss of sea ice due to climate change is affecting the survival of many Arctic species, including polar bears and their primary food source: ringed seals. Co-operation between states is crucial to slowing the effects of climate change, and WWF-Canada is pleased that a circumpolar action plan to protect this iconic Arctic species is now in place." With statements like these, Canada, being home to 65% of all remaining polar bears, seems to be making positive strives towards preservation and may be able to stem the tide of extinction yet.

While mass migration through human interference is backed with the best of intentions, it’s probably best to keep polar bears in their natural habitat, north of the 51st parallel. According to the WWF, the most salient way to keep the Arctic giant in the Arctic is to address climate change through the advancement of alternative energy sources such as wind and solar, because the practice of drilling for oil affects the polar bear’s natural habitat. Therefore, the best way to help them and other endangered species is to minimize human encroachment upon their homes. Leaving the wild to be wild.

 

Sources:
http://arcticportal.org/news/1561-press-release-international-agreement-reached-on-polar-bear-protection                                                                        http://www.coolantarctica.com/Antarctica%20fact%20file/wildlife/Arctic_animals/polar-bear.php                                                                                                                http://www.nwf.org/wildlife/wildlife-library/mammals/polar-bear.aspx                           http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/where_we_work/arctic/wildlife/polar_bear/wwf_polar_bears/                                                              www.polarbearsinternational.org/about-polar-bears/what-scientists-say/antarctica              http://dlnr.hawaii.gov/hisc/info/invasive-species-profiles/mongoose/
http://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/pestsweeds/HowFarHaveTheySpreadWhyAreTheyAProblem.htm