Polar Bears: Message of Hope

For all of us who love polar bears and who have been actively involved in conservation efforts, 2010 would appear to have been a continuation of the trends of recent years: Climate change-driven sea ice losses were dramatic and reached record lows, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions continued to mount, and polar bear populations continued to be impacted by these factors and other, more localized, unusual weather patterns. All told, the mantra of polar bear conservation didn’t change in 2010: We must continue to reduce our energy use and resulting CO2 emissions, or the polar bear will be lost. While many of us have worked hard at reducing our carbon footprint, this sobering reality tells us that we all have to do more, and we all have to share our passion for polar bears and their conservation with others.

In 2010, new efforts to protect the polar bear were mounted: conservation advocacy and legislation made dynamic strides (a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service “Critical Habitat” designation for denning areas in Alaska) and suffered some hard losses (the Center for Biological Diversity’s petition to list the polar bear as “Endangered” failed to pass). So, while the overarching conservation message and strategy haven’t greatly changed in the last year, this seeming “status quo” belies a very active conservation effort, including the coalescing of years of scientific research, responsible for an ever-improving understanding of polar bears and their relationship with, and dependence upon, their Arctic sea ice habitat.

The recent publication in the prestigious scientific journal Nature by Polar Bears International scientist Steve Amstrup, Ph.D., garnered much attention because it put forth a suggestion, founded in a rigorous scientific analysis, that there is hope for the polar bear. Based on years of data collected on polar bears and their sea ice habitat, Dr. Amstrup and colleagues showed that if people change their habits and reduce the amount of CO2 they release into the atmosphere, there is hope for the polar bear. If we reduce global CO2 emissions, we may see a reversal of the current trends of sea ice loss. Of course, it is important to realize that the smallest word in that last sentence is the most powerful: “IF.” “If” we make these changes, the best data available show that we can reverse the trends of overall sea ice losses documented in the past two decades. If we make these changes, the polar bear will continue to roam vast and remote expanses Arctic sea ice.

As an organization, San Diego Zoo Global has focused on the concept of hope and its importance to successful wildlife conservation efforts (see the Zoo’s Ten Reasons for Hope). Without hope, people give up. And when people give up, when they feel that they cannot make a difference, wildlife and wild lands are lost. Along with our conservation partner, Polar Bears International, we are asking polar bear lovers to explore all the opportunities that they have to reduce their carbon footprints by making small changes in their daily lives and household energy use. We need to do these things if we are to save the polar bear. We have the power to make a difference.

Megan Owen is a conservation program specialist at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Su Lin, Zhen Zhen Update.

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