The fraught politics of the polar bear: how an Arctic icon has been exploited

There is a disparity between the bear’s idealised portrayal, and the messy reality of its warming world.

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The first polar bear cub to be born in the UK for 25 years recently emerged from its mother’s den at the Highland Wildlife Park in Scotland. It has already been spotted slipping about in its ice-covered enclosure and a list of potential names will be released by next month.


Yet it’s the story of a different cub that best reveals the species’ plight. In 2013, an orphaned polar bear arrived at Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg, Canada, from the Arctic town of Churchill on the edge of Hudson Bay. When sea ice is in short supply, bears have been forced to scavenge for food in towns. This was most likely what the cub was doing the day its mother was mistakenly shot – by conservation officers searching for a bear that had attacked two people.


The tale of these two cubs is a reminder of the disparity between the bear’s role as idealised icon of Arctic wilderness, and the messy reality of its warming world. February this year was the region’s hottest on record and, unless action is taken to reverse this trend, bear numbers could fall by a third by 2050.


Human divisions over the bears aren’t helping the species. “The politics of polar bears has become quite horrendous over the last decade and a half,” says associate professor and former National Park warden Clark Douglas, who researches polar bear management at the University of Saskatchewan. “That makes dealing with issues like bear-human conflicts much harder to do.”


These tensions date back to the 1970s, Douglas explains, when the five Arctic nations joined forces to end decades of over-hunting. At first this united conservation effort progressed well; there were even times during the Cold War when “polar bears were about all the US and Russia could actually talk about”. But the initiative overlooked two factors that would become central to Arctic life: the indigenous rights movement and climate change.


A flashpoint came in 2005, when the International Union for the Conservation of Nature recommended that traditional, local knowledge about polar bears should inform conservation only if it could be backed up by science. This fuelled tensions over the indigenous hunting quotas that are exempt from the ban, and divided Arctic communities from those further south.


Then in May 2008, the US government listed the creature under the Endangered Species Act – yet refused to take action against the threat of man-made global warming. Numerous politicians, from Vladimir Putin to Justin Trudeau, have since followed by posing for photos and promoting bear conservation, while simultaneously protecting the interests of the oil and gas industry.


At best, these political sleights of hand have undermined the seriousness of the threat the Arctic faces. At worst, they have helped turn the species into a proxy for climate change denial. According to a recent article published in BioScience, climate change deniers have used complexity and variation in polar bear study in order to dismiss mainstream climate science. The non-peer-reviewed reports of Susan Crockford, an adjunct professor at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, have been promoted by the UK’s climate-sceptic Global Warming Policy Foundation.

The resulting confusion in public discourse came to a peak last year. National Geographic footage of an emaciated bear drew attention to the threat climate change poses – yet opened itself up to attacks of “fake news” by failing to pin-point the cause of suffering in this exact animal’s case. The fraught response to the footage shows the struggle climate scientists have in “communicating the very real nature of the risks and threats, while not conveying hopelessness,” says famed climatologist Professor Michael Mann (whose co-authored children’s book on climate change features a polar bear on the cover).

One solution to overcoming such divides is improving relations with Arctic communities. Interviews with Inuit hunters are helping to support satellite data with on-the-ground detail, revealing the ways human and ursine worlds entwine: polar bears are increasingly likely to have man-made trash in their stomachs, while some thrive on whale carcasses left behind by human hunts.


Polar bears also provide a cultural and economic lifeline for remote populations. “Inuit still rely heavily on subsistence hunting where caribou, ringed seal and polar bear have been harvested for thousands of years,” says a spokesperson from the Nunavut government in northern Canada.

Some of these relationships can be controversial – such as the ability of Inuit in Canada to profit from trading in polar bear parts and guiding foreign tourists on hunts. Yet improving communication between the various levels of arctic governance is vital to the polar bears' future. “I don't know if we'll ever come to agreement about the values, but we can make some progress in better understanding the various points of view and in paying attention to all the facts,” says Dr Henry Huntington, an Alaskan-based researcher who has spent years documenting traditional ecological knowledge. 

Dr Dwayne Menezes and Dr Ilan Kelman of the Polar Research at Policy Initiative in London agree: “We must discuss endangered polar bear populations, but without neglecting the critical human dimension which the media often forgets in its representation of the Arctic as a remote, inhospitable, endlessly white pristine landscape that is under threat.”

Seeing these creatures from the perspective of local people, rather than zoos, may prove thus this icon’s last, best hope. And when choosing a name for the UK’s new cub, “Churchill”, after the Arctic town, could prove apt. 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Delusions of empire