What WWF is doing for polar bears
WWF is working around the Arctic to secure a future for polar bears.
Polar bears, the charismatic icon of the Arctic environment, have long been a focus in WWF’s on-the-ground research and conservation projects in the Arctic, going back to 1972 – and climate change is a primary focus of our global conservation efforts.
Addressing climate change
WWF has a dedicated worldwide team working on issues of climate and energy, working regionally, nationally, and internationally.
- We support research on climate change effects, and show the way forward by funding research and analysis on alternative energy.
- We advocate for governments to recognize and mitigate the effects of climate change on polar bears.
- WWF has successfully pushed for a statement by countries with polar bear populations, formally recognizing the urgent need for an effective global response to address the challenges of climate change.
- WWF has successfully advocated for the creation of a circumpolar polar bear management plan.
Protecting critical habitat
WWF recognizes the urgency of protecting habitat for polar bears as they rapidly lose their sea ice habitat from climate change.
- We support the identification and protection of important polar bear habitat (denning areas and movement corridors, seasonal feeding areas/times, and key resting areas during the ice free period).
- We are supporting research to identify high value habitat areas - areas where the bears feed, den and give birth - and work with partners to conserve these places.
- WWF advocated for the creation of Polar Bear Pass National Wildlife Area in Canada’s High Arctic, and the Russian Arctic Park on the northern part of the island of Novaya Zemlya above Russia. We are involved in many more such plans.
- WWF has provided extensive financial support to the Wrangel Island Nature Reserve, known as the “polar bear nursery” for its high concentration of polar bear maternity dens. WWF won Wrangel Island as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004 and in 2012, successfully advocated for the significant expansion of a marine buffer zone around Wrangel Island and its smaller neighbour, Herald Island.
Reducing industrial impacts
WWF’s goal is to ensure that whatever development takes place in the Arctic is sustainable, and that it does not damage wildlife populations and ecosystems to any great extent.
WWF accepts that it is unreasonable to designate the whole Arctic as a place of no industrial activity. The Arctic is not like the Antarctic; it is occupied by more than four million people. While some of these people continue subsistence lifestyles, others want a place in the modern wage economy which often means jobs from exploitation of non-renewable resources.
- We analyze the technical capacities available to prevent and respond to oil spills, and advocate for the highest development standards through national and international venues.
- WWF staff have played a pivotal role in providing expertise to the Arctic Council to help draft a new binding agreement on oil spill preparedness and response.
- We have collaborated with scientists, conservationists and local people in opposing oil and gas development in some areas that are too ecologically valuable to expose to the risk of unproven Arctic oil spill clean-up procedures.
- Around the Arctic, WWF is preparing maps to help ships stay clear of ecologically sensitive places.
- We are advocating for best practices for shipping in the Arctic. WWF works with the International Maritime Organization on a polar code that would make Arctic shipping safer.
Creating safer communities
To most of the world, the polar bear is a big, white, fluffy, huggable animal. To people who live with polar bears, these animals are large and dangerous predators.
Keeping polar bears separate from people is better for both—as polar bears that wander into communities pose a risk to people, and people often respond by killing the bears. WWF has responded with a variety of locally-led initiatives to help reduce conflict.
- In northern Canada, we’ve provided steel food storage containers, so that local people can continue to store their food outside but protect it from marauding bears, and electric fences to separate bears from dog teams.
- In Russia, Canada, and Greenland, WWF-supported polar bear patrols deter bears before they get into populated areas.
- Throughout the Arctic, we convene workshops for people to share their experiences and successes in keeping the peace between people and bears.
Promoting sustainable tourism
While we want to see local people benefit from tourism, no one benefits if tourism drives away the sights the tourists have come to see.
WWF spent many years working with tourism operators in areas inhabited by polar bears to find ways to limit the impact of tourists on the bears and their habitat.
- WWF produced a set of principles for Arctic tourism. These principles have been adopted by some tourism operators, and have formed the basis for tourism codes of conduct in the Arctic.
- WWF is collaborating with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature to assess the specific impact of polar bear tourism.
Ensuring sustainable hunting
WWF supports the right of Indigenous peoples to continue to sustainably hunt local animals.
- We work with scientists, governments, local leaders and Indigenous communities to support the implementation of sound management and monitoring practices that can include human use where it meets viable management objectives.
- To help monitor, track, and analyze illegal wildlife trade, WWF helped set up a partner organization, “TRAFFIC”, the only global organization to specialize in wildlife trade issues.
- TRAFFIC’s analysis of trade in polar bears, “Icon on Ice: International Trade and Management of Polar Bears” concludes that international commercial trade is not a major threat to polar bears. The report makes recommendations that would improve current management of trade and make sure that it does not become detrimental to polar bears.
Supporting polar bear research
If we want to build meaningful management plans for polar bears, we have to know more about them.
Polar bear research tells us about their “vital signs” like body condition, reproduction, and cub survival. Trends in polar bear populations are even more important than hard numbers.
- WWF has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to polar bear surveys, and continues to do so.
- We are backing polar bear researchers trying to find out more about the ways in which polar bears are adapting to climate change in places such as Svalbard (north of Norway), where we support the activities of Norwegian Polar Institute researchers.
- For over 15 years, we have run a polar bear tracker, using data from WWF-supported researcher teams to track some of the animals by satellite.
- In 2005, WWF supported the Inuit Qaujimaningit Nanurnt (Inuit knowledge of polar bears) project in Arctic Canada, including the publication of a book. We continue to work with Indigenous peoples to help collect and pass on their knowledge.
Looking at the future of polar bears
Some of the prime territory for polar bears will be lost over the next few decades as sea ice decreases in spring and summer.
According to an influential 2009 paper published by several of the world’s top polar bear scientists, ice loss over the next few decades is expected to be particularly acute across the European, Asian, and Alaskan ranges of polar bears. At the same time, sea ice is expected to be largely unchanged above Canada’s high Arctic islands, and north Greenland. The paper suggests that this area will be increasingly important for maintaining healthy polar bear populations.
- WWF has followed the scientists’ advice and is making this “Last Ice Area” a project focus. We are investing in research, and consulting with local people and national governments on how this area should be managed in the future.
- We're also identifying and mapping Arctic habitats that are expected to be the most resilient to climate change.
The countries responsible for the conservation of polar bears need to do more to secure a healthy future for the species.
Large carnivores are sensitive indicators of ecosystem health. A polar bear at risk is often a sign of something wrong somewhere in the Arctic marine ecosystem.