Reaching Out for Polar Bears

Culprits of the nighttime shakedown? Visitors to the Tundra Lodge are common, including some devious ones that shook the lodge in the wee hours of the night.

Culprits of the nighttime shakedown? Visitors to the Tundra Lodge are common, including some devious ones that shook the lodge in the wee hours of the night.

Ron is in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, working with Polar Bears International. Read his previous post, The Polar Bears of Churchill.

This really is shaping up to be an amazing experience. Each day I go out on the Tundra Buggy, run by Frontiers North Adventures. Oh, and by the way, they are giving us a free pass on the Tundra Buggy and a room in the Tundra Lodge. They like what we are doing, trying to bring more attention to the plight of the polar bear. And it’s hard to imagine a species more deserving of attention than polar bears. They are the world’s largest terrestrial carnivores, and they are impressive.

My first night in the Tundra Lodge, I awoke to more than a little gentle rocking. The Tundra Lodge is somewhat like a train car up on monster truck wheels. Apparently, one of the polar bears thought it might be fun to give us all a little shake. I saw visions of our “enrichment feeders” we give our bears at the San Diego Zoo—objects they have to shake until some tasty treat drops out. Was I the tasty treat? Of course, several feet above the ground and separated by a steel wall, I was safe. But that’s the kind of place Churchill is. Wild tundra. Subarctic wilderness. Polar bears shaking your lodge.

Up close and personal! OK, so I did use a zoom lens, but this guy was pretty close. What an incredible opportunity to see these wild bears!

Up close and personal! Okay, so I did use a zoom lens, but this guy was pretty close. What an incredible opportunity to see these wild bears!

Out on the tundra in the Tundra Buggy, we see bears. Lots of them. One day, I was writing an e-mail, sitting on the buggy waiting to go out, and all of a sudden there is a mother and her two yearling cubs coming up to check us out. One went right under the buggy. Here, you don’t have to go looking for polar bears. They just might come looking for you. They seem so cuddly and curious. You almost want to believe that, if you stepped out of the buggy, you could be friends. But make no mistake about it, these animals are predators. Powerful predators, capable of hauling a 300-hundred-pound seal out of the water in a split second or, on occasion, even a beluga whale. Although polar bear attacks on humans are relatively rare, these guys are serious predators with a serious predatory instinct. They are nothing to mess with. So, I keep this in mind when I see one sniffing the air to see what we’re about or taking a nap, looking oh-so-peaceful. These are magnificent animals. But they are no panda.

A yearling cub spots a big male nearby. Vigilance pays off for youngsters. If they don’t stay away from adult males, they may end up becoming a snack.

A yearling cub spots a big male nearby. Vigilance pays off for youngsters. If they don’t stay away from adult males, they may end up becoming a snack.

But I’m not here just to enjoy the bears. I’m here to get the message out. And so are my colleagues, Evan Richardson, a polar bear researcher at the Environment Canada, and Deborah Colbert, the vice president of conservation for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. At the behest of Polar Bears International, a non-governmental organization devoted to the conservation of polar bears and arresting climate change, we are here on a mission. By using the Tundra Buggy to reach out to polar bears, we can do better outreach on their behalf. We’re videoconferencing, Webcasting, Facebooking, Youtubing, and using whatever media is at our disposal to deliver this message: our climate is changing, and we are to blame. It is affecting our environment across the globe, and it is affecting polar bears. But, please, do not give up hope. It is not too late—there is something we can do, for the bears, for our environment, and for our own health and well-being. We did this, and we can undo it.

Families of 3 are less frequent than they were a decade or two ago. This female is doing well to have two surviving cubs.

Families of three are less frequent than they were a decade ago. This female is doing well to have two surviving cubs.

What can be done? Really, it’s easy. Use less. Make wise decisions. Invest in and support green technology. And make it all a habit. Turn off the lights. Switch to compact fluorescent bulbs. Drive less. Carpool. Ride your bike. Stay home. Chose destinations closer to home. Buy a more fuel-efficient car next time. Put on a sweater, and turn down the thermostat. In summer, wear shorts and a tank top, and see if you can go without the AC. In San Diego, this is altogether possible. And don’t limit it to energy conservation. Conserve all our resources as much as possible. In the southwest, we really need to look closer at water conservation or the wildlife won’t be the only thing without water. There may not even be enough for us. (By the way, climate change is the reason we have less water. Even less water is predicted in the future.)

Although addressing a serious issue, this has been great fun, joining in with so many inspired and inspiring people, literally motivated to change the world. And all against this wonderful backdrop, the tundra of Churchill. Look at the pictures I’m posting. These really are fabulous animals. C’mon guys, we can’t let this animal disappear.

Ron Swaisgood is director of Applied Animal Ecology for the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research.

Watch the San Diego Zoo’s polar bears daily on Polar Cam.

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