By Jordan Schaul
Polar Bears International is not just another conservation group trying to save another vanishing species. It’s an organization that questions how we choose to live on this planet. Will we continue to exploit natural resources and destroy the very environment that we rely on ourselves for survival? Or will we change our behavior, think outside ourselves, become stewards of the environment and live as sustainable inhabitants of the Earth?
The polar bear is a majestic animal, and the Earth’s largest land carnivore. This amazing animal was designed to live a life on the sea ice in an unforgiving Arctic biome. Yes, saving the polar bear is the primary focus of Polar Bears International–perhaps one of the most influential wildlife conservation organizations of our time–but the organization has also brought attention to our own destiny and the need for better stewardship of our planet.
Sedated polar bear, Churchill, Manitoba, being relocated from polar bear jail. CEO and President of Polar Bears International Robert W. Buchanan is in the center, next to the camera.
Photo by Jordan Schaul
Polar bears are a flagship species, a charismatic megavertebrate. They are also an indicator species of climate change. There are other indicator species of climate change, but none more notable than the polar bear.
There is a paucity of life in polar and circumpolar regions of the world, but the polar bear compensates for this lack of species richness (diversity) in the Arctic. It is such an impressive and captivating animal that we are forever awed by them.
“The polar bear may very well disappear because its habitat is literally disappearing before our eyes.”
But the polar bear may very well disappear because its habitat is literally disappearing before our eyes. Their numbers have not dropped to levels of some other critically endangered species, thus far. But in their case the prognosis may be worse.
The habitat that was once suitable for supporting these apex predators, permitting them to pursue and ambush seals from above in seal lairs or when these pinnipeds surface at breathing holes, is disappearing. Without the sea ice they can’t reach their food. It’s very simple. Without access to their prey base, they can’t survive.
This summer plans were announced to construct the new International Polar Bear Conservation Centre (IPBCC) at Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Park Zoo. In June Polar Bears International announced plans to open a new polar bear center this coming fall at the Manitoba zoo. The center will serve as an international hub for zoo (collection)-based research and education resources as well as a quarantine, holding, and transition centre for orphaned polar bear cubs, injured sub-adults, or bears affected by a catastrophic events (such as oil spills).
Polar bear rehabilitation, research and public education will be the focus of the first-of-its-kind, world-class International Polar Bear Conservation Centre, Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger said in June this year, during a snow-turning ceremony to announce Canada $1 million in provincial funding for the Assiniboine Conservancy, the first part of a $31-million provincial commitment. The provincial commitment will include $4.5 million for the conservation centre and more than $26 million for construction of a polar-bear arctic exhibit. Right to Left: Don Streuber, Vice Chair Board of Directors Assiniboine Park Conservancy, Robert W. Buchanan, CEO & President Polar Bears International, Greg Selinger, Premier Province of Manitoba, Bill Blaikie, Minister of Conservation Province of Manitoba.
Photo courtesy of Assiniboine Park Zoo
Right to Left: Bill Blaikie, Minister of Conservation Province of Manitoba, Greg Selinger, Premier Province of Manitoba, Robert W. Buchanan, CEO and President Polar Bears International, Don Streuber, Vice Chair Board of Directors Assiniboine Park Conservancy.
Photo courtesy of Assiniboine Park Zoo
The IPBCC is a partnership among the Assiniboine Park Conservancy, PBI, and Manitoba Conservation.
Polar Bears International has a long history of promoting conservation efforts, including outreach through innovative classroom and on-the-ground education programs. Soon they will assist zoos holding polar bears by providing care and housing for wild individuals in need of intervention for a host of reasons.
Bears from this unique population can’t be rehabilitated, because according to PBI President and CEO, Robert Buchanan, “At this point we do not have the ability to return orphaned cubs to the wild and know that they would survive long.”
Some adult bears will be returned to the wild and others will be provided sanctuary and used to augment the existing captive gene pool in zoological parks and other captive wildlife facilities.
Emergency response unit for bears in distress
This center will serve as an international resource and authority for polar bear husbandry science, operate as an emergency response unit for bears in distress, which is in increasingly more common in a compromised habitat, and provide a location for field biologists and husbandry professionals alike to convene for formal meetings and workshops, as well informal opportunities to exchange information.
The center will cost Canada $4.5 million, with funding provided by the government (Province of Manitoba) and public and private donors.
The facility will include two adjoining units. The IPBCC Transition Centre, which serves as temporary accommodations for rescued, orphaned, or compromised bears, will include three adjoining “yards,” five indoor holding dens, as well as conditioning and assessment areas. An adjoining 5,000-square-foot public education, research, and administration building will be connected to the Transition Centre by a breezeway.
Robert Buchanan said that “Manitoba is the natural location for such a facility because the province has taken a leadership role in polar bear conservation. The Manitoba town of Churchill is known worldwide as the Polar Bear Capital of the World and Winnipeg serves as the gateway to that community. Manitoba is also a world leader in climate change and arctic ecosystem research through its three universities and the Churchill Northern Studies Centre.”
In a follow-up to this post the author will interview Dr. Steve Amstrup who recently joined Polar Bears International as their Senior Scientist.
Jordan Schaul is a conservation biologist and a collection curator with the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. He received his PhD in conservation/veterinary preventive medicine from Ohio State University and a master’s degree in zoology. He is a council member (ex officio) of the International Association for Bear Research and Management (IBA), a member and coordinator for education and outreach for the Bear Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, an advisor to the Bear Taxon Advisory Group of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, correspondent editor and captive bear news correspondent for International Bear News, and member of the advisory council of the National Wildlife Humane Society, which promotes high standards for wild carnivore care and welfare among private sanctuaries in North America. He is the creator of the Zoo Peeps brand which hosts a blog for the global zoo and aquarium community and two wildlife conservation oriented radio programs. He enrolled in clinical degree programs in veterinary medicine and has been on leave to pursue interests in animal management/husbandry science and conservation education.
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