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Forty years after the five countries that house polar bear populations agreed to act to protect the animal, progress has been made, but climate change and economic development are placing new pressure on their habitat.
“Today we face new challenges with the ship traffic increase and the oil and gas development,” Canada’s environment minister, Leona Aglukkaq, told a polar bear conservation forum held in Moscow this week and organised by the World Wildlife Fund.
SEE VIDEO: Polar bear myths and facts (at end of article)
The estimated polar bear population in Canada, Greenland, Norway, Russia and the US is estimated to be between 20,000 and 25,000. In the 1950s, it was estimated to be as low as 5,000.
Their numbers have grown steadily since the five countries signed the 1973 Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears, which was aimed at preventing overhunting that threatened to wipe out the animal entirely.
The conference concluded with the five states committing themselves to new conservation measures (read full delcaration) and recognising that they had a particular role in protecting polar bear populations in their territories.
“There is a need to manage polar bear habitat to reduce the vulnerability of polar bear populations, and take into account the projected long-term changes in Arctic sea ice conditions and the impact of those changes on polar bears and their prey,” the forum’s final declaration read.
The WWF praised the Arctic states for agreeing to renew their vow to protect polar bears, but Geoff York, the head of the organisation's polar bear programmes, warned that the declaration should not be seen as a way for states to avoid scrutiny of their conservation efforts.
“We will also continue to support critical polar bear work across the Arctic, contributing our resources and expertise to assessing the health of populations, identifying and managing key habitats, and reducing conflict between bears and people.”
But, it was increasing commercial activity, mostly in the form of shipping and mining, that was putting the most additional pressure on polar bear populations, the WWF said.
Oil drilling in particular has been demonised by environmental groups for being something of a ticking bomb for Arctic wildlife.
“We should not be allowing the development of oil and gas exploration in the Arctic,” said Jim Leape, the WWF director general. “There is no company in the world that has the technology to contain disasters.”