Arctic states need to speed up polar bear conservation: WWF

Ellen De Generes presented a gorilla conservation center

Two years into the 10-year, five-nation Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears, action is slow, says the World Wildlife Fund in a "scorecard" that measures progress on carrying out promises made in 2015.

A latest study led by a group of researchers from US Geological Survey has found that some polar bears in parts of the Arctic are losing weights substantially while this is the time when they should gain more.

"Just to break even they have to capture at least one seal every five to 10 days - and that's just to break even", said study co-author George Durner, a USGS research zoologist. "This study identifies the mechanisms that are driving those declines by looking at the actual energy needs of polar bears and how often they're able to catch seals", Anthony Pagano of U.S. Geological Survey, now a Ph.D. candidate at University of California, Santa Cruz and first author of the paper, said in a statement Thursday.

They attached high-tech collars to the bears to record their activity and captured them twice in 11 days to test their blood and urine.

"We've documented declines in the population, declines in the abundance, declines in the survival rates, declines in the body condition in the population", said lead author Anthony Pagano, a research wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey's Anchorage office.

For this study, the scientists put trackers on nine female polar bears in the Beaufort Sea region.

"This study is a attractive example of how animals are built to live in synchrony with their environment". If there is less sea ice and it is broken apart, bears have to travel more - often swimming - and that has serious consequences, such as more energy use, hypothermia and risk of death, said University of Alberta biology professor Andrew Derocher, who wasn't part of the study. That's why the melting of the Arctic sea ice threatens polar bear survival.

As climate change continues to have dramatic effects on the Arctic sea ice, polar bears are forced to cover greater distances, making it harder for them to catch prey.

It turns out in the extreme conditions of their Arctic home, polar bears have a "high-energy, high-fat lifestyle" to survive. "Eventually, you run out of gas".

Pagano said much of the foundational work in understanding the basic foraging habits and behaviour of polar bears is based on work done about 40 years ago.

This is an adult female polar bear on the sea ice wearing a Global Positioning System satellite video-camera collar.




It all comes down to metabolism, the rate at which the bears use energy, according to Anthony Pagano, a PhD candidate at U.C. Santa Cruz and lead author of the study.

"It's an issue of how much fat they can put on before the ice starts to break up, and then how much energy are they having to expend", Pagano said.

"We now have the technology to learn how they are moving on the ice, their activity patterns, and their energy needs, so we can better understand the implications of these changes we are seeing in the sea ice", Pagano said.

This is a polar bear still-hunting at a seal hole on the sea ice of the southern Beaufort Sea.

As well, the bears were equipped with Global Positioning System collars that also collect video records of activity during daylight.

From an evolutionary point of view, a loss in body weight in some animals doesn't necessarily mean that the total number of polar bears will decline, Fickel stresses.

However, he doesn't doubt climate change and receding ice will have an negative impact on the polar bear because of what he says should be an obvious reason.

Previous studies estimate the mortality of male polar bears would increase from 6 per cent to 48 per cent if fasting periods increased from 120 days to 180 days.

Best estimates say there are 20,000 to 30,000 polar bears in 19 different groups or populations scattered across the top of the U.S., Canada, Greenland, Norway, and Russian Federation.

But still, "when I see pictures of big glacial blocks breaking away and the sea ice is retreating, I get anxious", Fickel admits.

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