Ocean Currents

Is it really too late for polar bears?

© Alaska FWS

Unlike some of my Ocean Conservancy colleagues, I’ve never traveled to the Arctic, never felt awe in the presence of marine animals like polar bears while working to protect them and their frozen haunts.

But I’ve read plenty of riveting accounts, and see spectacular photos and videos of polar bears languishing on the ice, or plunging into frigid seas to swim incredible distances. I’ve been drawn to the irresistible antics of their cuddly cubs, and awed by the terrible, beautiful power of one male charging another that dares move in on his mate.

I don’t need to visit the Arctic to support my conviction: The world needs polar bears. To me, it’s just a matter of faith. The planet would be bereft without these majestic icons. But we may be facing a world without them. What can we do?

It’s a conversation we don’t want to have, but we must. Polar bears simply can’t survive in the wild without the broad expanses of sea ice where they hunt, bear young and rest. Right now, they are walking on thin ice – or none at all.

As climate change rapidly melts this essential habitat right out from under their huge paws (by 2030 sea ice could be nearly gone in summer), one option may be to preserve the species in zoos through breeding programs aimed at preserving the gene pool.

Abhorrent. That’s the word that comes to mind when I contemplate relocating wild polar bears to zoo enclosures. In fact, U.S. law currently prohibits the importation of polar bears for public display.

But we may be reaching the point of no return when it comes to climate change impacts the Arctic. Will it come to that, the wild with no wild polar bears?

Give a listen as Juliet Eilperin of “The Washington Post” and Dr. Jeffrey Bonner, president and CEO of the St. Louis Zoo, talk with NPR about “walking hibernation,” why these great white bears can’t survive on land, and how zoos could help save them.

Drastic situations call for drastic measures. We should be doing all we can to reduce our collective carbon footprint so these marvelous creatures can thrive.

We’ve learned it’s not about just one species. These bears are emblematic of an entire ecosystem that supports a complex web of life, from tiny krill to walruses, seals, sea birds and whales.

When you listen to the sobering conversation noted above, I hope, like me, you’ll ask yourself: “What can I do today to give Arctic wildlife like polar bears a fighting chance?” Let us know your thoughts about this in the comments below.

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