Featured Image Credit: Assiniboine Park Zoo
By Jessica Kittel
The Assiniboine Park Zoo is no stranger to orphaned polar bears. The zoo has taken in two since November. The most recent cub was discovered wandering alone in the Churchill area, on Canada’s Hudson Bay Coast. This little guy is roughly a year old and weighs less than any other orphaned polar bear the center has received.
The zoo was not anyone’s first choice for this cub. Wildlife officers attempted to pair him with different “surrogate” females in the area (cubs at this stage need to stay with their mothers for the first winter in order to learn to hunt). Unfortunately, the cub was not adopted by any of the females and they had to turn to plan B. The Independent reported that the zoo issued a statement regarding the cub:
“First and foremost please know that we at the Assiniboine Park Zoo were hoping more than anyone that we would not get a call this year about a cub needing our help. We believe these beautiful animals belong in the wild. We also believe when we receive a call from conservation experts from the Province of Manitoba saying an animal needs our help that it is our obligation to do so.”
While the cub seems to be in good overall health in his new home, the same cannot be said about the world’s polar bear populations. The National Wildlife Foundation states that these bears were the first vertebrates listed by the U.S. Endangered Species Act as likely to go extinct as a result of global warming. This decision was based on the fact that sea ice is consistently decreasing.
Polar bears depend on sea ice for their most important activities. They use these platforms of sea ice to rest, breed, and most notably, hunt. Polar bears aren’t quite fast enough to chase their main prey, seals, which provide the fats and nutrients required to survive in a harsh arctic environment. NASA.gov describes how they instead wait to ambush the seals on the sea ice or break through the ice into the seals’ dens.
However, the sea ice is not what it used to be. The sea ice is farther away from shore each year, as the National Wildlife Foundation describes. The bears have to swim longer and longer distances to get to the ice and, even when they get there, the ice is now over deep and less productive water. On top of that, the ice is forming later and melting earlier. Compared to 35 years ago, there are seven weeks less of usable sea ice habitat and, at this rate, it doesn’t look like it’s going to ease up. By 2050, the polar bears could lose another six to seven weeks of ice.
This is an ongoing issue and Assiniboine Park Zoo Conservation head, Stephen Petersen noted in CTV News, “This is a reminder to all of us about the close tie between sea ice and polar bears. The loss of sea ice due to climate change is alarming and it is critical that we work together as a community to reduce our carbon foot print and take personal actions to positively impact the environment, not only for polar bears but for all wildlife.”