In early March, the governments responsible for polar bears – Canada, Greenland, Norway, the Russian Federation and the United States – met in Svalbard to discuss their ongoing cooperation to conserve polar bears. They have met regularly since 1973.
Then and now
At that time, the main threat to polar bears was commercial hunting. Strong action by the five governments, together with advances in our knowledge of polar bears through science and indigenous knowledge, mean that almost half a century later, polar bears are protected from commercial hunting.
Now, the biggest threat polar bears face is climate change. They depend on sea ice for all aspects of their lives and human-caused climate change is profoundly changing the Arctic. The five governments recognised this in 2013 and in 2015, they launched a 10-year collaborative plan to conserve polar bears and their habitats.
The need for urgent action can't be ignored
During the meeting, it was impossible not to feel the need for urgent action to conserve polar bears and their habitats. Svalbard is ground zero in the Arctic for the climate crisis, having lost almost half its sea ice coverage in the last 40 years.
- We heard female polar bears on Svalbard are leaving their dens with their newborn cubs about three weeks earlier than previous decades.
- In the southern Canadian Arctic, bears are experiencing higher mortality, lower body condition and even smaller body size due to nutritional stress.
- In west Greenland, each year polar bears are spending about 30 days longer on land, without access to their main food source: seals. In just three polar bear generations as sea ice loss continues, two-cub litters might disappear from this subpopulation, replaced by single cubs.
Is international polar bear conservation working?
At the meeting, Norway’s Head of Delegation put it accurately when he said the past five years yielded important experience for the five governments in working together. But they missed some crucial steps.
The governments have a vision, but little way of knowing whether they are achieving it and their conservation objectives. The next two years of coordinated work will be partially spent developing baselines so they can measure progress. This means we will finally know, how much essential polar bear habitat is protected across the Arctic, and the true scale of conflict between people and polar bears.
With changes in the Arctic happening quickly, it’s not enough for the five governments to be calculating baselines, monitoring changes and witnessing what science has predicted – global declines in polar bear populations. They need to consider the mounting effects of climate change in polar bear management and conservation.
From some of the actions they have identified, it seems they recognise this. Now, they need to prioritise those actions in the next two years.
And what of the biggest threat to polar bears – climate change and loss of sea ice?
These governments hold the future for polar bears in their hands, so they have a responsibility to speak up about the need to reduce emissions. This includes to their own policymakers, who are collectively responsible for 25% of global emissions.
It is time that the sense of urgency we all felt during the meeting is translated into strong and sustained action to conserve polar bears.
Melanie Lancaster, Senior Specialist, Arctic species
WWF Russia’s Polar Bear Patrol helps local communities reduce conflicts between animals and people. Over a period of four days, more than 60 polar bears gathered at Cape Kozhevnikova in Chukotka close to the village Ryrkaypiy looking for food.
In October 2019, the Polar Bear Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) released a new assessment of polar bears. The findings reveal the most up-to-date information for polar bear populations.