Captivity Could Help Polar Bears Survive Global Warming Assault, Some Zoos Say
Polar bears are ideally suited to life in the Arctic: Their hair is without pigment, blending in with the snow; their heavy, strongly curved claws allow them to clamber over blocks of ice and snow and grip their prey securely, and their rough pads keep them from slipping.
The one thing they can’t survive is the disintegration of the ice. They range across the sea ice far from shore to hunt fatty seals, whose blubber sustains them.
Heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions caused by burning fossil fuel are making the Arctic warm twice as fast as lower latitudes; current climate models suggest Arctic summer sea ice could disappear by 2030.
Polar bears would prefer to hunt for seals year-round, but the disappearance of sea ice has forced them onto land or far offshore where the ice remains only over deep unproductive water. “Either way, they’re food deprived,” said Steven C. Amstrup, chief scientist for the advocacy group Polar Bears International and an emeritus researcher with the U.S. Geological Survey.
So a group of activists, zoo officials, lawmakers and scientists have come up with a radical proposal: Increase the number of polar bears in U.S. zoos to help maintain the species’ genetic diversity if the wild population plummets. And in a worst-case scenario, a remnant group of bears would survive in captivity.
That should be good news for the St. Louis Zoo, which has designed a $20 million polar bear exhibit with a cooled salt water pool and concrete cliffs covered in simulated ice and snow for between three and five bears. It’s goal was to have them there by 2017. But so far it hasn’t got a single bear lined up, since it’s illegal to import them, captive cubs are rare and finding orphaned bears in Alaska is difficult.
The Fish and Wildlife Service could allow the importation of polar bears for public display through future legislative or regulatory changes, but has shown no inclination to pursue those options.