The Polar Bear (Urus maritimus) is the largest (although it does overlap the largest of the “Kodiak” subspecies of the Brown (“grizzly”) bear), and most carnivorous, of the world’s eight bear species, as well as being one of the best known and most controversial. That controversy stems from debate over the degree to which the species is threatened with endangerment and even extinction from human causes, specifically climate change (CC).
The cause, even the existence, of CC is also a controversial issue, made so by those who either blindly reject, or do not understand, the overwhelming amount of evidence that CC is occurring, and is to at least a significant degree the result of anthropogenic (human-caused) activity, most specifically the use of fossil fuels, deforestation and meat production – these being actions of material benefit to most of humanity.
And that debate is significantly exacerbated by the fact that Canada allows a commercial hunt of the species (albeit under the guise of a traditional aboriginal hunt – one that non-aboriginal trophy hunters can partake in if they pay enough hard cash into northern communities). Canada is the only one of the five nations with jurisdiction over land occupied by Polar Bears that allows the species to be hunted for sport, and the trophies legally exported. Polar Bear skins and other parts and derivatives are of great and increasing value.
The incontrovertible fact is that ice cover in the bear’s arctic and subarctic environment is, on average, diminishing overall and to varying degrees. Female bears are smaller than males, but have the added energy burden of pregnancy, milk production and maternal care. The primary food need for both sexes is fat. They require prodigious quantities of fat, such as may be provided by other marine mammal species. But while males are strong enough to overcome such large prey species as Belugas (“white whales”), Walruses and Bearded Seals, the females are not. Beached whales can provide fat, but the occurrence of such gastronomic bounties are infrequent and irregular, thus not dependable. Whale carcases can be dominated by hungry males who pose a threat to the cubs, even, possibly, to the nurturing females.
What does provide a dependable supply of fat for mother Polar Bears is a widespread species of seal, the Ringed Seal. But they, in turn, depend on ice over water, where they build small shelters to protect mother and young, both dependably accessible to the nurturing mother Polar Bear.
I believe that while Polar Bears are iconic, we should be similarly concerned about decline in the environment’s ability to support Ringed Seals, always assumed to be common, as well as significantly important to traditional needs of the Inuit. I’ve tried to symbolize all this in this oil painting, showing a Polar Bear in open water to represent the loss of ice in her habitat, eating a Ringed Seal, so named because of the ring-like markings on the pelage, just visible in the painting.
Barry Kent MacKay
Bird Artist, Illustrator
Studio: (905) 472 9731
31 Colonel Butler Drive
Markham, ON L3P 6B6 Canada