Known as: Polar Bear
Estimated numbers left in the wild: between 22,000 and 32,000.
The mightiest terrestrial predator of the modern age, the polar bear is a massive white-furred bear from the Arctic. Male polar bears are 2.4 to 2.6 meters long and weigh 400 to 600 kilograms, while females are quite a bit smaller, at 1.9 to 2.1 meters and 200 to 300 kilograms. These bears stand 1.2 to 1.6 meters high at the shoulder.
Their fur, though it appears white, is actually clear, though the light refracts from it to produce the characteristic snow white, yellow-white, or pale tan appearance of these bears. Fascinatingly, so little heat escapes through the polar bear’s blubber and fur that they have almost no infra-red signature, and they cannot endure temperatures above 10 degrees celcius.
Hunting: The polar bear is a powerful, solitary hunter, though they are not territorial and can be quite companionable and playful when several bears are together. Their main prey consists of seals. To hunt these animals, the polar bear lurks in areas of broken ice, waiting for a seal to surface for air. Ringed seals and bearded seals form the vast majority of their diet, though they will eat practically any animal found in the Arctic, including belugas and narwhals, sea-birds, and dead, beached whales. Highly athletic, polar bears are excellent swimmers and can swim at 10 kilometres per hour for a considerable distance. Their sense of smell is extremely keen, allowing them to smell seals for up to 1.6 kilometres, and their hearing and eyesight are also excellent.
Polar bears are fairly tolerant of their own species and have been observed on rare occasions playing with sled dogs (though they are usually hostile to dogs). They gather on sea ice during April and May to hunt seals and breed. Males will fight over females, but females often mate with several males anyway. The eggs do not develop until autumn, giving the female time to eat and gain a large amount of weight. The cubs are born in a maternity den over the winter while their mother is in a hibernation-like state. Polar bears live to around 25 years in the wild, when they become slightly slowed by ageing and starve to death, though they could potentially live for another 15 to 20 years before reaching the end of their biological lifespan.
Location: The polar bear is a circumpolar predator, found throughout the Arctic region in the north of both the New and Old World. The bears are found on tundra, ice, pack ice or ice floes, and sometimes swimming for considerable distances in the open ocean.
Threats: Polar bears are thoroughly protected from hunting, and though poaching occurs, it is not a major threat as it once was. In the 1970s, polar bears were almost hunted to extinction, leading to the current hunting ban and protected status. Today, the biggest threat is the unpredictable but doubtless negative effects of climate change, which affects both the bears and the seals they depend on for food. An ice-free Arctic could potentially spell the doom of these magnificent animals, if greenhouse gasses are not brought under control quickly.
The bears’ health and reproductive success may also be suffering from pollutants. As the apex predators of their environment, they absorb and concentrate pollutants from the flesh of their prey, and may have a more difficult time recovering because of this.
Conservation efforts: A highly successful conservation program is responsible for the polar bear’s survival into the 21st century, and its still-rebounding numbers. The International Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears curtails hunting and protects the breeding and migration areas of these large animals. More efforts are now needed to help the bears survive climate change – though if the change is too drastic, these attempts will be in vain.
Bear Trust International
Bear Trust International is an American organisation which works to protect different bear species around the world and their habitats through education, research, management and habitat conservation.
Hauser Bears is a UK based charity with a mission to change peoples attitudes towards bears. Their main work revolves around research and education to ensure a future for all bear species.