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Endangered Species Day: A Polar Obsession

Paul Nicklen
 

When I was just four years old, my family moved to a tiny row house in Iqaluit, formerly Frobisher Bay, on Baffin Island. At this moment, I knew I had found my home and my fascination with ice began. It would grow to become a polar obsession.

As we mark Endangered Species Day today, I have been reflecting on one of my favorite species — polar bears, or Nanuk, the Inuktitut word for polar bear. My fixation with polar bears developed at an early age and has lasted throughout my career, causing me to publish my book Polar Obsession, in 2009. My love for these iconic nomads of the north has only grown fonder since I was a child. Photographing polar bears in their Arctic home has been one of the most challenging things I have done in my career — and one of the most rewarding. I have devoted countless hours to observing these magnificent beings as they hunt, spar, catch seals and nurse cubs, and I am always fascinated by how some of the moments I capture with my camera take on lives of their own.

Polar Obsession chronicles my assignments and expeditions in the Arctic and Antarctic. While this book captures moments from later in my career, there is one anecdote I neglected to include, in part because it came early in my career as a biologist. I became a wildlife photographer after my time in the field as a wildlife biologist. I had become alarmed by declining wildlife numbers and felt we were not doing enough to inspire change. A career in conservation and wildlife means constantly learning and evolving your perspective. With each expedition, I learn something new and become a more observant, more skilled wildlife professional.

During my time as a field biologist, I worked alongside a team of professional polar bear guides. The lead guide used two huskies to help our research team track and monitor polar bears in the wild. I loved huskies dearly, but I was a novice when it came to using huskies for tracking polar bears. I made a mistake that caused me to have an incredibly close call with a polar bear. Imagine what you would do if you had a large male polar bear charging at you across the sea ice as fast as a horse! (I’ll explain more about this unforgettable moment in Part Two of this story, which I will post next week). This moment left an indelible impression on me. Much of what I have done since then around polar bears has been informed by that one encounter. These apex predators are magnificent beauties, but they are powerful and wild predators that need to be treated with the utmost respect and proper distance.

Since this encounter, I have spent much of my life walking in the tracks of polar bears. I estimate that I have seen more than 2,000 of them in the wild — and I have never had to take a single life in self-defense. No animal should be feared in haste. Respect is the keyword here — respect, and knowing when and how to keep a distance.

Unfortunately, these ice giants face numerous threats in the wild. They are officially listed as “vulnerable” on the IUCN’s Red List of threatened species, but I think they need to be uplisted to “endangered,” meaning they face a very high risk of extinction as a result of declining populations. The designation is saved for species that have lost 50 to 70% of their population over the previous 10 years.

In the past few years, there has been a lot of misinformation about polar bear numbers increasing. Much of this is based on people seeing more polar bears more often, but in this case, anecdotal evidence is misleading. Reports of more polar bear sightings in communities around Hudson Bay, for example, are a result of polar bears wandering into towns, raiding food caches and entering camps, where they are invariably labeled “problem bears,” and are dealt with accordingly.

Hudson Bay is not an isolated case. There have been numerous reports of polar bears raiding remote northern communities across Russia’s High Arctic, almost always for food. In February 2019, during what would normally be midwinter, more than 50 polar bears occupied Guba, a work settlement in a remote Arctic archipelago. The bears menaced camp workers, ransacked garbage dumps and broke into residential buildings. According to translations of government reports at the time, the invasion of polar bears prompted regional officials to declare a state of emergency just days later.

Polar bears are opportunistic feeders and will grab a quick, easy meal when they find it. Conflict is inevitable, and the results can be tragic — for both people and polar bears.

This misunderstanding creates a distorted view of the status of polar bears, fueling the fire for relaxed rules and regulations for the giants that have little to do with real conservation. As global citizens who are borrowing this planet from future generations, we have a responsibility to understand, interpret and relay accurate scientific information that improves conditions for all vulnerable, threatened and endangered species, no matter how well known or unknown, wherever they’re found.

Today, and on this Endangered Species Day in particular, Specifically, I fight for an accurate assessment of polar bears because this species represents an entire ecosystem, and, for me, remains an incomparable symbol of the Arctic, my true home. As a keystone species, polar bears keep populations of other animals in balance, which is a critical component of a functioning ecosystem. Without immediate, serious action, scientists predict we could lose all but a few polar bear populations by the end of the century.

To paraphrase that great, gentle man and legendary naturalist Sir David Attenborough, who remarked of elephants — and I would say the same for polar bears — the question is, are we happy to suppose that our grandchildren may never be able to see a polar bear except in a picture book?

Today, I am thinking about the future of polar bears, and I hope you are, too.

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