Changing Planet

Are We the Last Generation to See Polar Bears in the Wild?

Is the extraordinary polar bear going the same way as the dodo? A large flightless bird, the dodo was last seen in the 1600s, when it was most likely clubbed on its island home by protein-starved sailors looking for some meat for their cooking pot.

While our generation is not likely to be guilty of eating the last wild polar bear, we are contributing to the rapid decline of the iconic species because of  the industrial emissions we have been pumping into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution (read the explanation of this further along this post).

Take a moment this International Polar Bear Day (February 27,  #polarbearday) to reflect on this incredible species and how we stand to lose it in the wild by the end of this century.

A polar bear, Ursus maritimus, at the Tulsa Zoo. Photographed for the National Geographic Photo Ark by Joel Sartore. Species are disappearing at an alarming rate. But together we can help. The interaction between animals and their environments is the engine that keeps the planet healthy for all of us. But for many species, time is running out. That’s why National Geographic, along with renowned photographer Joel Sartore, is dedicated to finding solutions to save them. Click on the Sartore photograph of the polar bear above to get more information.
A polar bear, Ursus maritimus, at the Tulsa Zoo. Photographed for the National Geographic Photo Ark by Joel Sartore. Species are disappearing at an alarming rate. But together we can help. The interaction between animals and their environments is the engine that keeps the planet healthy for all of us. But for many species, time is running out. That’s why National Geographic, along with renowned photographer Joel Sartore, is dedicated to finding solutions to save them. Click on the Sartore photograph of the polar bear above to get more information.

Ursus maritimus is Threatened wherever it is found, says the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). According to FWS, 19 populations of polar bears are distributed in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Norway, and Russia. The worldwide population is estimated to be 22,000-25,000 bears. But while these numbers remain relatively stable, FWS says, “climate change, contamination of the Arctic environment, potential over-harvest, and increasing human development in polar bear habitat pose conservation challenges for polar bears.”

Whereas in earlier times the main threat to polar bears was hunting, today the primary conservation concern for polar bears is loss of their sea-ice habitat and reduced access to their primary prey, due to climate change, says Polar Bears International. “Without action on climate change, scientists predict we could lose wild polar bears by 2100. Two-thirds could be gone by 2050,”says PBI. The nonprofit’s mission is to conserve polar bears and the sea ice they depend on. (Read an Interview with Polar Bears International Chief Scientist Steven Amstrup.)

What can we do?

Find out more about polar bears and the risk to their survival by browsing the links below. Consider how climate change is being effected by how we use our planet in unsustainable ways. Decide for ourselves what we can do to help reduce our impact on our planet through educating ourselves and others, supporting appropriate causes, and making the best decisions for how we conduct our lives.

About the Polar Bear (National Geographic)

4 Ways Polar Bears Are Dealing With Climate Change (National Geographic)

Conservation status of polar bears (Ursus maritimus) in relation to projected sea-ice declines (The Royal Society Biology Letters)

Ursus maritimus (IUCN Red List of Endangered Species)

The Life, Land, and Future of the Polar Bear (Polar Bears International)

National Geographic Voices archives for polar bears

The National Geographic Photo Ark is a multi-year project to photograph all species in captivity. The polar bear is one of them. To learn more about the Photo Ark, visit natgeophotoark.org,

Follow the Photo Ark photographer Joel Sartore and the National Geographic Photo Ark on InstagramTwitter, and Facebook, and add your voice using #SaveTogether.

Forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. He has 120,000 followers on social media. David Braun edits the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. Follow David on Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn
  • Tomasie Panipak

    That will not happen unless Inuit are restricted from polar bear hunting. They were created for Inuit harvest.

  • Ron McCune

    We can EASILY solve the problems that many animals around the world face simply by setting up feed and water stations throughout the world for animals that need it. WHY don’t we do it as well as set up protection by humans for the animals! The animals would GLADLY drink the water and eat the food and reproduce in mass quantities if we were to do this. We could pay farmers money for crops eaten by the animals too. Let’s do this instead of watching these animals die!

  • Dianne Norton-Taylor

    This is so sad…while there are many solutions that could help, most of man kind is too self absorbed and too greedy and selfish to bother to help…the ice caps have been melting for years, driving the Polar bears inland into unnatural habitats like forests and urban areas and making them starve…that’s really distressing to see….hopefully they will not become extinct in my lifetime..

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Researchers, conservationists, and others share stories, insights and ideas about Our Changing Planet, Wildlife & Wild Spaces, and The Human Journey. More than 50,000 comments have been added to 10,000 posts. Explore the list alongside to dive deeper into some of the most popular categories of the National Geographic Society’s conversation platform Voices.

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Voices director: David Braun (dbraun@ngs.org)

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