Author photo Sergey Gorshkov, RGO

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus Phipps, 1774)

The polar bear is the largest living bear species (Ursidae Gray, 1825).

Oshkuy, umky, yavvy, uryung-ege, nanook, ser vark – all of these words means “polar bear” in different languages used by peoples of the Russian Arctic.

Main external difference of the polar bear from other bears is white fur. In fact, polar bear’s fibers have no color and each fiber has a spiral cavity filled with air. This characteristic allows the animal to safe warmth. Fur of many polar bears tinges a kind of yellow color with time.

Sows (adult females) can grow up to 2 meters at length and weight around 200-250 kg. Boars (adult males) are much larger. They grow up to average length of 2.5 meters and weight around 350-600 kg.

Newborn cubs are about 30 cm at length and weight around 500 grams.

Cubs (from 1 to 3, more frequently 2) are born in a maternity den, prepared at the autumn’s end – middle of winter. Family leaves the den in March. Sow cares about her cubs for the first two years, during which the cubs never go into the den.

On the third year of life, in spring, cubs leave their mother and begin individual life. Lifespan of the polar bear in the wild is up to 40 years.

Life of the polar bear is closely connected with ice – its main habitat, where he hunts for its main prey – ringed seals and sea hares.

At the end of spring pregnant sows dig maternity dens at continental coast and on arctic islands, and then they give birth to the cubs. Other polar bears do not go into dens.

The polar bear is a slowly reproducing species. Sow cannot give birth to more than 8-12 cubs in the course of her life. Number of deaths among the first year cubs is very high. According to the IUCN polar bear specialists, there are 19 subpopulations of the polar bear with an overall size of 20.000 – 25.000 species.

Conservation status:

Status of the polar bear in the IUCN Red list is Vulnerable A3c what means that the polar bear population decline by 30% in 3 generations (45 years).

Polar bear is listed in Appendices II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Appendices II includes species that are not necessarily threatened but can become in the future if trading of these animals for purposes incompatible with their survival is not strictly prohibited.

Conservation status in Russia (according to the Red book of Russia):

  • The Kara – Barents seas population: category 4 – uncertain status.
  • The Laptev Sea population: category 3 – rare.
  • The Chukotka – Alaska population: category 5 – reestablishing.
  • Killing of the polar bear in the Russian Arctic strictly prohibited since 1957.

Federal law №150-FZ “On introducing amendments to certain legislative acts of the Russian Federation” adopted 2 July 2013 introduced new article 2581 to the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation that created criminal responsibility for illegal killing, management, purchase, custody, transportation and trade of outstanding animal species and biological water resources, listed in the Red book of the Russian Federation or protected by international agreements of the Russian Federation and (or) their parts or products. List of wildlife objects includes mammals, birds and fish listed in the Red Book of the Russian Federation or included in the Red Book of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and in Appendices I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, Endangered Species (CITES). The polar bear is included in the list approved by the Decree of the Government of the Russian Federation №978 on 31 October 2013.

Work to draw up the Strategy on preservation of the polar bear in the Russian Federation and the Roadmap started upon the initiative of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Ecology of the Russian Federation and with support of the World Wild Fund (WWF Russia) in 2008. Leading Russian polar bear experts took part in the work on these documents. The strategy was approved by the Natural Resources Ministry’s decree №26-r, dated 05 June 2010. Goal of the national Strategy is to define the polar bear preservation methods in the Russian Arctic under the conditions of human impact on sea and coastal ecosystems, and climate changes in the Arctic. The Strategy is the official document that defines the polar bear preservation policy of the state. Main task in implementing the Strategy is preservation of the polar bear in the Russian Arctic under ongoing human impact and climate warming.

International agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears

The Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears signed by the five arctic countries – Canada, Norway, the US, the USSR and Denmark, played exceptionally huge part in conservation of the world population of polar bears. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, established in 1968, participated greatly in preparation and further implementation of the Agreement.

Russia-U.S. Bilateral Agreement on Polar Bear Conservation

Except for the international agreement there are bilateral agreements between arctic countries on management of specific shared polar bear populations. There’s an agreement between the Russian Federation and the United States, signed on 16 October 2000. The agreement between the governments of the United States and the Russian Federation to protect the shared Alaska-Chukotka polar bear population became effective on September 23, 2007. Main objective of the Agreements is conservation of the Alaska-Chukotka polar bear population in the long term. Both countries shall pay special attention to the areas of bears’ dens, concentration of bears during feeding and migration. To complete these objectives the Parties ensure against loss or destruction of polar bear’s habitats that could lead to animals’ death and population decrease.

Current threats to the polar bear

1. Sea ice shrinking in the Arctic

Polar bears prefer to spend most of the time on ice. In summer, when ice starts to withdraw towards the North, most of the population stays on ice. But part of the population spends the season ashore.

Global climate changes lead to sea ice shrinking in the Arctic – key habitats of the polar bear. As a result:

  • Pregnant sows, spending their summer on ice, can have difficulties with access to shore and islands and, thus, to denning. That leads to embryo loss or sows den in uncomfortable conditions, what also reduces the likelihood of a posterity survival.
  • More bears are forced to spend their time ashore. This leads to feeding problems, and increases level of conflict interactions with human.

2. Negative man-made factor

Illegal hunting is totally prohibited in the Russian Arctic since 1 January 1957. Illegal hunting has always been, but it is difficult to assess number of killed bears. Supposedly, illegal hunting estimates some hundred species.

Disturbance factor isparticularly critical for pregnant sows and sows with first year cubs near the maternity dens.

Man-made pollution. Being at the top of the ecological pyramid of the arctic ecosystems, polar bear cumulates in its organism almost all of the polluting elements (persistent organic pollutants, heavy metals, oil hydrocarbons) hitting the ocean.

By Andrey Boltunov Translation