Save the Polar Bear!
For every problem there is a solution that is clear, simple, and wrong.
– H.L. Mencken
Is the polar bear doomed on a warming Earth? In the past few years, there has been much public concern about the future of this magnificent creature, which is often seen as the symbol of the effects of climate change on the natural world.
The polar bear is considered a vulnerable species by the World Conservation Union (IUCN), and the US Government granted it protection as a “threatened” species in 2008. While it is unknown whether polar bear numbers are actually in decline, there are serious concerns that a reduction in Arctic sea ice would have a profound impact on their populations.
It has been projected that we could see a total absence of Arctic summer sea ice within our lifetimes.1 This would clearly have a devastating impact on entire ecosystems, and on Arctic marine mammals such as seals, narwhals, and bowhead whales. For many people, however,2 any concerns about the effects of global warming on Arctic environments are completely overshadowed by concerns about … polar bears. Just polar bears.
In real life polar bears may well be fearsome, devious, cold-hearted killing machines, but in photographs they often look like large white puppies or happy people in fluffy bear suits. What could be more compelling than photos of cute, cuddly, huggable bears standing on ice floes, wrestling playfully, or batting around old tires?
For those who see the polar bear, like the panda, as a teddy-like animal that must be saved at all costs (regardless of what happens to all the other life forms around it), I have been considering steps that might be undertaken to ensure that many wild polar bears will remain in the world far into the future. The white bear could thus continue indefinitely as a symbol of all that is clean and fluffy and easily anthropomorphized.
There have already been many ideas put forward for the salvation of the polar bear, some practical, some less so. Some writers have suggested, for instance, that bears be relocated to liberal cities on the North American mainland, where they can feed upon well-upholstered climate activists. Other wits have proposed that polar bears could be readily rounded up and moved to Antarctica, where there are suitable sea ice conditions and an abundance of fat-rich marine vertebrates upon which they could dine.
Either of these suggestions would, however, be scientifically indefensible. Sound scientific practice for the relocation of mammal populations requires that we should only move them to areas where they lived previously, from which they have been extirpated. Such areas are typically places that could benefit from the presence of the reintroduced species, at the same time as that species is benefiting from the features of the new area. The reintroduction of species is sometimes considered as a component of rewilding, the return of habitats to their natural state.
Considering this issue as a scientist, I propose that we relocate a sustainably-sized polar bear population (say, at least a thousand of the animals) to a place where they lived in the distant past, a place where the existing natural ecosystem has been severely disrupted by human activities, a place in drastic need of rewilding. It is also a place where there is a virtually endless source of fat-rich mammals of a species so abundant that they will never be “threatened”, no matter how many are consumed by voracious bears.
For this scientific assessment, let’s first consider where polar bears might reasonably be relocated. Their current range includes the Arctic Ocean and some of the nearby seas and land areas. Their prehistoric range is, unfortunately, poorly understood, but a few details are known.
It is thought that polar bears (Ursus maritimus) may have diverged from brown bears (aka grizzly bears; Ursus arctos) just a few hundred thousand years ago. Polar bears have a poor fossil record, so fossils shed little light on their evolution. The oldest fossil is a jaw from Spitsbergen that is about 110,000-130,000 years old.3 Among the few other known specimens is the ulna of a large animal that lived about 70,000 years ago, dug up at Kew Bridge, London, England. The paleontologist Björn Kurtén4 assigned this to a polar bear subspecies, U. maritimus tyrannus.5
Based on this admittedly limited data, it seems scientifically reasonable to suggest that polar bears be reintroduced to this part of their former range. This could be considered as a further step in the environmental rejuvenation of southern England, an extension of the clean air laws of the 1950s and the well-known cleanup of the Thames River in the 1960s. Certainly there are other major projects that should be undertaken to encourage native plants and to maintain species such as the curlew, but surely the return of a true apex predator would be the crowning achievement of Britain’s environmental renaissance.
The release of polar bears to the Home Counties would, of course, provide wonderful wildlife-viewing opportunities for a very large population. People love to see live polar bears, but it is clear that the animals do not do well in zoos. Zoo bears exhibit abnormal behaviours and it is cruel to keep them there. Well-heeled people pay large money to see wild bears, travelling to remote places like Churchill, Manitoba.
This sort of travel is, sadly, out of reach of the great majority of the population. By taking the wild polar bears to the people, then, we would be greatly democratizing the entire ecotourism process. The opportunity for an exciting close encounter with a huge, sharp-toothed polar bear would be available to all, regardless of age or social standing; it would no longer be the preserve of the leisured rich. Further, we could be certain that the bears they encounter would be plump and well-fed. There are few sights as disturbing as a hungry, skeletal bear.
The greatest and most positive impact of the reintroduction of polar bears to regions such as the Cotswolds would be in the area of traditional English sports. Large bears were just one component of the diverse indigenous macrofauna of the British Isles. Like other creatures such as wolves and wild cattle, they have been extirpated due to the presence of humans, by the development of towns and agriculture, but also notably through hunting. As people have hunted out the larger and fiercer species, the need for “sport” hunting has caused a transition to the pursuit of smaller and less frightening creatures such as mink and hares. The end result of this movement “down the food chain” 6 was that particularly sorry spectacle of 19th and 20th Century Britain: the fox hunt, also referred to as “the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable.” 7
Now, in the 21st Century, fox hunters have had even this meagre pursuit taken away from them by legislation, and those who do it legally are reduced to pallid facsimiles such as drag hunting8, though there have been some rumblings that the hunt is really not quite dead yet.
Regardless of whether it is really deceased or just resting, one of the major issues with the fox hunt is that, when you get down to it, it is not the least bit sporting. There is a dreadful imbalance between the mass of dozens of hunters, horses, foxhounds, terriers, and various servants of the hunton one side, and an elegant but smallish fifteen-pound mammal on the other. The ending is generally predetermined, with the fox being ripped apart by hounds; where is the sport in that?
My suggestion of the re-introduction of a key component of the extirpated macrofauna could make for a far more entertaining sporting event, an unpredictable contest in which disaster and death are always just the slash of a gigantic paw away. In this era of Ultimate Fighting Championships and base jumping, the return of polar bears to Britain could permit the English hunt to take its place in the pantheon of internationally-televised sporting events.
Can you imagine the wonderful interactions between red-coated, horse-riding hunters and their new, dynamic “prey” species? Can you picture the scene, as a pack of baying foxhounds meets a devious, fearless 1000-pound mass of muscle, sinew, claws, and teeth? It is a fox hunt tradition that new hunters are “blooded” 9 from the first fox kill they are involved in; now all members of the hunt would have the opportunity to be blooded every time they go out.
Now that would be a sport. And the television shows could even include the disclaimer that “no polar bears were harmed in the production of this program”.
Of course, all that this “modest proposal” illustrates is that a species can never be looked at in isolation from its ecosystem and environment. Even if we were able to save the polar bear by moving it to a new location, few of us would really want to live in a world without an Arctic, that great cold attic of strange creatures and places somewhere over the top of our “civilized” world. And the cuddly polar bears would not be truly happy in the English shires, even if their presence might have certain beneficial effects. Unless, of course, we could consider relocating walrus there as well …
1 International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in their Fifth Assessment Report (AR5)
2 Possibly the same people who spend a lot of time online searching for cute cat pictures.
3 Ingólfsson, Ólafur and Wiig, Øystein. 2009. Late Pleistocene fossil find in Svalbard: the oldest remains of a polar bear (Ursus maritimus Phipps, 1744) ever discovered. Polar Research 28(3): 455-462.
4 Kurtén, Björn. 1964. The evolution of the polar bear, Ursus maritimus (Phipps). Acta Zoologica Fennica 108: 1–26.
5 More recently this bone has been re-assigned by some scientists to U. arctos, but we will ignore that finding for the purpose of the present discussion.
6 The concept of hunting of foxes in Britain could be compared to current ideas that we should be fishing and eating more jellyfish. In both cases, this is not because they are the best animals for the particular function; rather, they are all that is left as a result of humanity’s rapacious harvesting of creatures that are much larger and fiercer in one case, and much tastier in the other. The ritual aspect of fox hunting, however, has few parallels even among the many bizarre forms of human “harvesting” behaviour.
7 Oscar Wilde, A Woman of No Importance.
8 The mind boggles at the diverse potential meanings of this term.
9 Blood (tr.v.).– to smear the cheeks or forehead of (a person) with the blood of the kill as an initiation in hunting. (The Free Dictionary)
© Graham Young, 2014