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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Polar Bears International

In an era of hyper-partisanship and politicization, there are few issues more hotly (pun unintended) contested than global climate change (sometimes referred to - inaccurately - as global warming).  Though climate change has the potential to impact the survival of countless species, from insects to elephants, it is most closely associated with those that inhabit the polar ice caps.  It's no surprise, then, that the poster child for the debate is the arctic's most iconic animal - the polar bear.

Polar Bears International (PBI) is, in its own words, "the world's leading polar bear conservation group."  FIfty years ago, when sport hunting was the leading threat to polar bears, that would probably have seemed like a pretty manageable goal.  Today it's one of the greatest conservation challenges imaginable.  Polar bears are primarily threatened by the loss of the sea ice upon which they depend for survival.  The challenges that polar bears face are caused not by a few hunters with snowmobiles and guns, but by billions of people using up the limited resources of a strained planet.  Many of those people live thousands of miles away from any wild polar bears, or will never see one in a zoo.  The threats are made increasingly complex and involved by the interplay of politics, economics, and cultural differences.  Saving polar bears will also be equally complex and involved.

With that in mind, PBI has a multifaceted approach to saving polar bears.  It closely monitors polar bear populations and studies reproduction and demography of wild polar bears.  It attempts to gain more knowledge of the basic biology of polar bears, especially studying how they react to environmental stressors.    It has a vigorous educational outreach campaign.  It also promotes activities that will help slow the impact of global change, such as the promotion of green technologies and lifestyles, and the planting of trees (a campaign which many zoos participate in).  PBI recognizes the value that zoos and aquariums play in conserving polar bears, and partners with "Arctic Ambassadors" to educate and inspire the public.  Zoo polar bears are also used to provide data for PBI research, providing biological samples (blood, feces, etc) that can be difficult to obtain from wild bears.

Polar bears are amazing animals - massive, powerful, silent, fierce, and superbly adapted to their natural habitat.  As adaptable as they are, however, they cannot hope to cope with the rapidly-changing, human-modified world which we are forcing upon them.  If polar bears are to have a future, it won't be by accident; it will be because people around the world were willing to educate themselves and make lifestyle choices to help save one of our planet's most iconic predators... and a whole lot of other species as well.

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