© Richard Barrett / WWF-UK Polar bear climbing on ice

Polar Bear

As our planet warms and sea ice melts, polar bear populations are increasingly at risk.

About Polar Bears

The largest bear in the world and the Arctic’s top predator, polar bears are a powerful symbol of the strength and endurance of the Arctic. At least two thirds of the world’s polar bears live on Canadian territory, giving Canadians a special relationship with —and responsibility for— these bears. The polar bear’s Latin name, Ursus maritimus, means “sea bear.” Its an apt name for this majestic species, which spends much of its life in, around, or on the ocean — predominantly on the sea ice.

As sea ice melts, more and more polar bears can be found resting along Arctic coastlines. It is in these areas where their powerful sense of smell attracts them to garbage, stored food, dog teams and animal carcasses — bringing them into greater conflict with Arctic people.

Polar Bear Facts

Polar bear with cubs in the Wapusk National Park, Churchill, Manitoba, Canada

Polar Bear

SPECIAL CONCERN

Scientific Name:

Ursus maritimus

Inuktitut Name:

Nanuk or nanuq

Weight:

350-680 kg

Length:

2-3 m

Population:

22,000-31,000 polar bears worldwide

Status:

Special Concern

Special Concern
A wildlife species that may become threatened or endangered because of a combination of biological characteristics and identified threats.

Did You Know?

Polar bears have large paws the size of dinner plates that evenly distribute their weight, so they don’t fall through the sea ice. Polar bears have three sets of eyelids; the third helps protect their eyes from the glare of snow and ice.

Why Are Polar Bears Important?

Being at the top of the food web, polar bears can signal that there are problems in the Arctic marine ecosystem. They are likely to be among the most significantly affected species as the Arctic warms and sea ice melts.

Over thousands of years, polar bears have also been an important part of the cultures and economies of Arctic peoples. Polar bears depend on sea ice for their existence and are directly impacted by climate change, serving as an important indicator species.

© Richard Barrett / WWF-UK Polar bear mother and cubs walking on ice.

Threats

The polar bear’s future is inextricably linked to its sea-ice habitat. As climate change continues to reduce the thickness of sea ice, the future of polar bears and their habitat are at risk. Less ice means increased conflict with humans as bears spend more time on land seeking new sources of food.

The ice is the foundation of Arctic marine life, the ecosystem on which bears rely for every aspect of their lives. It is where they mate and raise their cubs. Sea ice is also essential habitat for their primary food, ringed seals, as they pup and rest on the ice.  Current knowledge shows that polar bears have some capacity to adjust to the warming Arctic, but the loss of sea-ice habitat may be happening too rapidly to allow for adaptation and there are no substitutes on land for the fat-rich seals on which the bears depend.

Some of the best-studied polar bear populations are spending more time on land, like those in Manitoba, Ontario and southern Nunavut. Without sea ice and seals, polar bears are left to search for other food sources. This can lead them into communities, where garbage dumps, sled dog yards and human food storage offer easy pickings. Conflict between bears and people can follow.

What WWF-Canada is Doing

In Canada and across the Arctic, WWF supports polar bear studies that determine the number of bears, their health and the state of sea-ice habitat. This research includes satellite telemetry studies that help us understand their movements and habitat requirements.

WWF is advocating for the protection of polar bear denning areas across the Arctic and working with Northern communities on effective polar bear co-management. Many Inuit believe that polar bears will adapt to a changing climate and have reported local increases in polar bear numbers in some areas of the Arctic. There is a need to use both Inuit knowledge and scientific information to plan for a healthy future for polar bears and people in the North.

What is certain is that polar bears will face a difficult future without sea ice, which has been the foundation of their lives for hundreds of thousands of years. WWF is helping Northern communities live safely alongside the Arctic’s top predator. We work with communities to improve waste management, we fund training and salaries for locals to deter bears from villages and safeguard communities, and we raise awareness within communities on best practices for reducing conflict with polar bears.

Read about WWF’s efforts to protect the Last Ice Area, the area where sea ice will be most resilient, and what this will mean for polar bears.

© Richard Barrett / WWF-UK Polar bear on ice flow

What You Can Do

With a changing climate, polar bears are increasingly at risk. With your gift, you can help protect some of the world’s most vulnerable species and the habitats they call home.

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