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Whitney Angell Leonard’s Blog

Time to Take Action on Polar Bears: Lessons from the International Polar Year

Whitney Angell Leonard

Posted April 27, 2012

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IPY 007_small.jpg

A polar bear cartoon on display at the IPY 2012 conference

For the past few days, I’ve been representing NRDC at the International Polar Year conference in Montreal, Canada, which has been both fun and fascinating. While I haven’t seen any polar bears first-hand (contrary to popular belief, not all of Canada is an ice-bound polar bear haven) I have learned a lot about the bears and their arctic home. And the theme of this year’s conference is “From Knowledge to Action,” which I find particularly appropriate for the realm of polar bears, as it is becoming increasingly clear that we urgently need to take action to protect them.

The International Polar Year (IPY) began in 2008 as an effort to encourage research collaboration and information sharing among polar inhabitants, researchers, and policy makers. Since then, IPY has helped fund and coordinate collaborative research across the Arctic and the Antarctic, bringing together researchers from many disciplines, countries, and perspectives.

IPY has also put on 3 major conferences, creating even more opportunities for information sharing. (And yes, the International Polar Year has lasted a lot longer than a year, because they realized a multi-year effort would be most effective, but they stuck with the original name). This year’s conference marks the finale of IPY, which is why the theme focused on the transition from gaining knowledge to acting on that knowledge.

Gaining an understanding of how ecosystems function – and how people interact with them – is incredibly important, especially in systems changing as fast as our planet’s poles. The topic of rapid change came up in nearly every presentation I attended: it is abundantly clear to scientists and people living in the Arctic that change is already underway. The research I heard about looked at many aspects of this change, from analyzing trends in toxic chemicals found in polar bear hairs, to identifying polar bear responses as seal birth rates change, to documenting changes in sea-ice cover. I also heard a lot about changes on the human dimension, including shifts in the economic base of northern communities, and transforming attitudes toward research involving native peoples.

But understanding these changes is only the first step (remember the theme?). The purpose of gaining all this knowledge is to provide policy makers with the information they need to make sound management decisions – to act.

In one of the sessions I attended, a woman in the audience cut to the central question of the conference when she asked, “So when do we decide to act based on the knowledge we already have, instead of always waiting for more?”

In other words, when does the pursuit of “perfect” or “complete” knowledge become an excuse for avoiding action?

This brings me back to polar bears. While we will never know absolutely everything about polar bears, we have enough information to know that they are seriously in trouble. Experts already know that polar bears are threatened by climate change, hunting and trade, oil and gas development, and toxic contaminants that make their way up the arctic food chain. These threats are taking a toll, and fast: in 2005, 5 of the world’s 12 well studied polar bear populations were already found to be declining, and by 2009, scientists found that 8 of the 12 were declining. Experts predict that two thirds of the world’s polar bears will be gone by 2050, including Canada’s iconic Hudson Bay polar bears.

In Canada, the only country that still allows sport hunting of polar bears and export of polar bear parts, this industry is compounding the problems for polar bears. And with hide prices soaring on the global market, international trade is a major driver of polar bear hunting.

It’s time to take polar bears off the market. The U.S. has a chance to do this by proposing “up-listing” to Appendix I – amounting to a ban on international trade in polar bear parts – at the next meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). The U.S. is still deciding whether or not to take this step, and they are asking for public input before they make their decision. Join us in telling the Obama Administration to help save polar bears. The time to act is now.

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Comments (Add yours)

Theresa OngMay 1 2012 09:32 PM

I have no words for the tragedy of the dwindling population of polar bears and the melting of Arctic glaciers. About two years ago in June, my boy friend and I took a cruise through the inside passage of Alaska. One of the highlights of the journey was to see a major glacier. There was barely anything to see as it had melted so much! Every endangered species diminishes Mother Earth.

jose carlos oliveiraSep 25 2013 05:59 PM

It is unbelievable that the authorities of the provinces own boost the killing of polar bears just to promote the fur trade. These skins are the heritage of humanity. You need to respect animals because the world is theirs, too. Our outrage authorities insensitive.

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