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Polar bears

Beast of contention

Polar bears serve both as national symbols and emblems of conservation

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Author of the Month
Michael Engelhard

Reflecting over the ice bear
The polar bear is not only the planet’s biggest land-based carnivore, but it also has a long and colourful, if often violent, history of interaction with humans, which is the topic of an illustrated new book titled,  Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon, by Fairbanks, Alaska-based author, cultural anthropologist and wilderness guide Michael Engelhard.

Below, Mr Engelhard offers some of his reflections about polar bears, how humans relate to them and their impending doom

On the nature of polar bears
I’d call them a blubber-burning powerhouse. Based on my research and admittedly limited personal encounters with the bears, I think they are mostly suffering a bad rap as ‘ruthless killers’. They often get in trouble for what is only curiosity – a trait that, ironically, makes them survivors in a sparse, open environment. The statistics show that brown bears kill and maul more people per year than polar bears do. Of course, smaller population numbers and remoteness also play a role there. Like most creatures, polar bears just want to eat and procreate, to keep on living and to protect their offspring.

On popular conception and misconception
Especially tourists coming north with the goal of polar bear viewing, see the animal as somehow ‘pure’ and also ‘majestic’. Many are looking for a sort of American Eden, although, with climate change, ocean pollution and mineral extraction, such a place no longer exists, not even in the Arctic. Many of the bears are starving and no longer look pure or majestic. The ‘man-eater’ is another persistent trope, and has been since Victorian times. It’s especially popular with the tabloids whenever a human dies in an encounter with a polar bear. They are also not quite as solitary as many people think, as seen at the bowhead ‘bone pile’ in Kaktovik.

As the sea-ice ‘platform’ for hunting seals melts earlier in the year and forms later, the bears spend more time on land, and their diet has become more varied – they tend to be much more omnivorous, eating geese, birds’ eggs, and have even been known to go after porcupine or a dead lynx. In the heyday of polar exploration they sometimes even dug up human burials, which contributed to their sinister reputation.

On using polar bears in popular culture
The anthropomorphising of any animal that looks, thinks and behaves like us in many ways is always inevitable. The closer on the mammalian evolutionary scale an animal is to us, the easier it is to identify with it – and in the case of the bear, to project on it some of our ‘scarier’ traits, such as aggression. While I detest the attitude from a wilderness fan’s perspective –we need things that are absolutely not us, not built or engineered by us – as an anthropologist I appreciate it as a valuable venue for research regarding beliefs, attitudes, and cultural practices. Tragically, anthropomorphising taken too far, like the humanoid polar bears in Coca-Cola cartoons, keep people from sympathising with, or even learning about, the plight of wildlife. A recent study estimates that by 2020 only 67% of Earth’s wild animals will remain. People might not miss them that much if they mostly see them on logos or as merchandise without ever learning what these wildlings really are like.

On polar bears in indigenous culture
It’s not just an idea that fascinates Siberian or North American native oeoples; in a recent video of ‘The Hunter’, a song by the Icelandic pop star Björk, the artist starts shaking during the performance and then morphs into a polar bear. The theme of human-polar transformation even crops up in the Norse sagas, mostly of the later period, after the settling of Greenland, where the Norse had more contact with the white bear and with ancestors of the Inuit. So there might have been some exchange of ideas. One of my favorite tales of transformation (from Alaska’s Noatak River) tells of a woman who gives birth to twins: one a brown bear, and one a polar bear. They each take off to live in their respective environment, the inland tundra and the sea-ice. To me, this myth not only poetically illustrates the shared heritage of both bear species (polar bears evolved from isolated brown bear populations) but also their closeness to humans – with the implication that we are responsible for their well-being.

As an object of veneration and a resource for indigenous groups
This sentiment of a contradiction to me is just another expression of modern alienation. The killing of food in traditional societies is part of life and unites all beings in a cycle. The difference to our meat-eating society is that the killing was done face-to-face and by every family. More honest, you might call it, or else just a matter of different logistics or a society’s ‘complexity’. Unlike in our slaughterhouses, the killing at least never was casual. In a sparse environment such as the Arctic, you simply cannot pass up any food source. The act of killing is not seen as disrespect as long as it’s done in the proscribed, sanctioned manner. And bears kill people too. There was also a fear of retribution by the spirit of a slain animal. People believed in a ‘recycling’ of animals, which, if treated respectfully, would regenerate and seek out the hunter again or tell other wildlife about the way they’d been treated. Even some non-native hunters who hunt for food, not trophies or sport, share a deep understanding about the interconnectedness of all life and of the necessity to kill in order to live.

On eating polar bear
It’s a question of luxury versus necessity. Especially in light of animal parts traded for the traditional Asian medicine markets and the trade in endangered species or their parts as trophies or souvenirs, this needs to be closely regulated and monitored. Do we need more wildlife species to become endangered because of new fads of the rich? In the case of traditional hunting, the consumption of wild meats is often tied to a social or even ceremonial context and these foods constitute an important part of native peoples’ history and identity. In many Arctic stores, food and especially meat is often not fresh, sometimes not available and never cheap.

I have not tasted polar bear meat but would not hesitate – and in fact even be curious – if, and that’s a big if, the meat were taken and offered in a ‘natural context’, that is, if an Eskimo hunter shot the bear for his own use and offered some, or if it were being served at a feast I attended. Frank Buckland, a Victorian zoologist who served his guests anything from mice to ostrich, actually believed he could learn something essential about an animal by eating it.

On keeping polar bears in captivity
Just like polar bears living in zoos, polar-bear numbers in the wild are a controversial subject, and open to bias. Canada, where polar-bear hunting is still legal even for non-Canadians, maintains their sub-populations are stable. Part of the problem is that largely females and den sites are being monitored and even these are very remote and vary from year to year. Radio-collars don’t stay on males well (their neck and head is of about the same width, so collars fall off), and, from a biologist’s perspective, females are more interesting and valuable as they are the ones who bear offspring, and cub survival ultimately determines population numbers. The entire wild population is in the range of 20,000 to 25,000 animals. I have no figures on zoo bears, as my research focused largely on qualitative not quantitative information.

There perhaps is a place for bears in zoos, because you can conduct research there that’s impossible to do in the wild. From a conservation point of view, it doesn’t make any sense. We should rather focus on preserving the bears’ environment. Of what use are a few lone surviving specimens isolated in zoos?

On polar bears as a tourist attraction
Polar-bear tourism, in Alaska, happens largely in the small Inupiaq-Eskimo community of Kaktovik, on the Beaufort Sea. It’s boat and van-based and as such not wilderness guiding, which is what I do: backpacking and rafting. But from my research in Kaktovik I know that tourists there expect up-close – the closer, the better – and personal encounters unlike in Churchill, where dozens of visitors get trucked in on gigantic Polar Rovers and see bears often only at a distance. Of course, that expectation also can lead licensed guides to compromise the rules for bear viewing that is safe and stress-free for the animals. And in any confrontation between humans and bears, the bears normally lose and get shot.

I think this sort of eco-tourism is a mixed blessing: it brings much-needed income to rural communities, and the bears and the discourse about climate change could benefit from the public’s attention. But I doubt most visitors learn much about the local culture or even the wildlife and that few will change their behavior, becoming politically active on behalf of either.

As a symbol of conservation
We now have the polar bear as a political icon, used as a cartoon by Coca-Cola, which donates to the World Wildlife Fund, despite polluting the environment with, energy-wise, costly throwaway soda cans. The WWF and other ‘conservation organisations’ in the past have received funding from extractive industries. Big Green is in bed with Big Business. In the triage of sacrifices, polar bears have been assigned monetary values to weigh them against other benefits to humans. Beneath the many symbolic layers, we lose sight of the animals, of their right to exist without any human permission or purpose. Anthropocentrism is a much graver sin than anthropomorphising, though the two are related. I would like to see the polar bear dethroned from its iconic status. Or at least joined in a democracy of all things living, by the naked mole rat, the aye-aye and the blobfish, by the ‘strange’, the small, the obscure. It is just one page in the grand book of life, which we have reduced from a Tolstoy doorstopper to a slim poetry collection.

Compared with other animals
I absolutely do not think the bear is more beautiful or sublime. That’s just human bias, based on our beauty ideals. Of course, I am trying to make a point here: projections such as ‘beautiful’ and ‘majestic’ are closely related to such as being ‘useful’ and ‘important’. They are all anthropocentric, except for ‘important’ in the context of ecosystem functioning: the ‘keystone’ animals. These ‘others’ are self-willed and different, and we should refrain from judging them as much as possible or as if they were part of the world we engineered. Look at species about which people get excited: whales, bears, rhinos, elephants, gorillas ... . All ‘charismatic megafauna’ or ‘headline species’. But nuts and bolts matter as much to the large bridge that is biodiversity and that links present and future.

On the future of polar bears
Warming of the atmosphere by several degrees already is locked in, even with the levels of carbon dioxide produced until now. And there still is no drastic reduction of output in sight. As much as I’d like to end on a positive note, I fear that the white bear is doomed and that it might merely precede us in extinction. If humans could learn from experience, from history, why haven’t we already?

We recognise International Polar Bear Day today with an excerpt from the book Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon, as well as a few reflections from its author, Michael Engelhard. This will mark the first instalment in an on-going Author of the Month series, in which we highlight the author of a current Arctic-related release, or an author with a body of work relating to the region.

Today, no animal except perhaps the wolf divides opinions as strongly as does the polar bear, top predator and sentinel species of the Arctic. But while wolf protests are largely a North American and European phenomenon, polar bears unite conservationists – and their detractors – worldwide.

In the new millennium’s politics, polar bears play the part whales played in the 1980s. From a theatrics-as-protest perspective, their shape lends itself better to impersonation than that of a rainforest or whale. Activists take advantage of this. Dressed as polar bears, they show up in the most unlikely places – the Kremlin, or Ottawa’s Parliament Hill – as non-human ‘climate refugees’. In an act billed as “part protest, part performance”, Greenpeace paraded a mechanical polar bear the size of a double-decker bus through central London, as part of its Save the Arctic campaign. Fifteen puppeteers operated Aurora the bear, which had an articulated head and neck, a mouth like an ice cave, and the real bear’s ‘slightly lazy’ ambling gait (below).

(Photo: Epping Forest District Council)

When climate change became a pressing political issue, zoos that had closed polar bear exhibits or were planning to do so because of their high costs reversed course, making sure polar bears were on hand. In part, this reflected zoo visitors’ growing interest. But zoos also stepped up their breeding programs when the species was listed as threatened – many of their bears were well past the reproductive age. They soon increased their holdings also with abandoned cubs and ‘problem’ bears removed from the Arctic.

Like captive breeding programs and reintroduction efforts in general, science-assisted interventions in the field raise the question of what constitutes wildness, or the bearness of polar bears. One of several emergency actions proposed to relieve starving bears has helicopters airlift food to the “most accessible” ones – at a cost of $32,000 per day. (Similar programs already exist for intensely managed animal species and populations such as the California condor, black bears in Washington and brown bears in eastern Europe.) Other last-ditch efforts biologists suggest include relocating bears farther north, where sea ice will last longer; moving more bears to zoos; and even euthanising those unlikely to survive on their own. Some Inuit who decry even the radio-collaring of polar bears as disrespectful to the animals and who are tired of ‘outsiders’ meddling say to just let them be.

Already, polar bears used to humans and to associating humans with food have become nuisances in communities such as Kaktovik on Alaska’s Beaufort Sea coast. Villagers there and elsewhere have killed polar bears in defense of life or property, sometimes on their doorstep. The temptation for locals to feed bears to attract them and the subsequent tourist dollars also is great.

With the polar bear caught in the media’s limelight, some Canadians began to consider it a more fitting national emblem than the beaver. In an attempt to oust the official signature animal – “the dentally defective rat” – one senator reminded her fellow citizens that a country’s symbols are not constant and can change over time. The polar bear would be perfect for the part, with its “strength, courage, resourcefulness, and dignity”. An opponent countered that “you can’t beat a beaver for stoic hard work and industry,” a perfect metaphor for the pioneering Canadian spirit. Such resistance shows the difficulties of rebranding, with brand loyalty in this case entrenched for more than 36 years.

When the senator pitched it as a new national symbol, the polar bear had already reinvigorated Canada’s oldest trade, which the animal rights movement’s stance against wearing fur had previously damaged. Since the bear’s numbers were thought to have declined and restrictions on hunting it consequently increased, its value as status symbol rose, to a level comparable to its first appearance in Europe during the Middle Ages. Sports hunters now pay up to $30,000 to shoot a polar bear in Canada. In the last five years, the price of pelts alone doubled, with the best selling for $20,000 or more. Even in small amounts, legal polar-bear hair, used in fly-fishing, is hard to obtain. Like real flies, lures made with the hollow hairs settle gently on water. There is no equivalent, and patches of pre-treaty skin with hair sell for $6 per square inch in the United States.

A store that sells fur garments on Quebec City’s Rue du Petit-Champlain, North America’s oldest commercial district, is also a taxidermy business. The price of this polar bear skin was $12,000 (Photo: Julia Pelish)

All this encourages poaching, especially in Russia, where 40 to 200 bears are killed each year. Their skulls and skins enter the market with false Canadian documentation, the forging of which itself is a lucrative business. The resurgent demand for fur rugs, claws, carved masks with polar bear fur, and similar items comes largely from Russia and China, where a growing middle class spends money on status symbols that are passé in the West. South Koreans, on the other hand, buy dried polar bear gallbladders for ‘medicinal’ uses, at $3,000 a piece.

Canadian politicians say that initiatives to outlaw such trade or hunting are based more on emotion than on science and that the hunting quotas are sustainable. (Inuit and trophy hunters kill about 600 polar bears per year.) In the feelings it awakens, this controversy resembles the ‘seal wars’ of the 1970s and 1980s, when big-eyed, white ‘baby’ harp seals clubbed on sea ice caused furor and even French sex symbols became activists. Impassioned appeals, however disguised, come from both sides. “A ban would affect our ability to buy the necessities of life, to clothe our children,” an Inuit representative at the 2013 CITES conference said. “We have to protect our means of putting food on the table and selling polar bear hides enables us to support ourselves.” Perhaps by intention, this statement counts on our empathy, on our instinct to nurture and protect the human young and frail.

A polar-bear hide hangs to dry in Upernavik, Greenland (Photo: Kim Hansen)

The same native spokesman redirected the discussion toward the root cause of the polar bear’s plight. He accused the United States of compensating for its lack of action on climate change and pollution of the Arctic from drilling and mining, of using the polar bear as a blunt tool, because it is “the perfect poster child”.

Contradictions abound. Matters quickly get complicated. These days, art itself can no longer be apolitical or unaware of social currents, if its mission is to change public perceptions or to transcend established practices. Inspired by the Nazca lines and children’s drawings, another Icelandic artist, Bjargey Ólafsdóttir, used organic red food dye to paint a gigantic polar bear outline on Langjökull Glacier (below), as part of a concerted effort by artists and environmentalists to call attention to the 2010 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancun. It looked as if Earthlings had made a statement for extraterrestrials, showing them that they care about bears.

(Photo: Christopher Lund)

Less than half a year later, coast-guard personnel killed a real polar bear stranded on Iceland’s northern coast – as bears have since Norse times – because it might disappear into the fog, wander into more densely populated areas, and there pose a risk to the public. A fraction of said public was very upset by the killing. It suggested marooned bears be outfitted with radio-collars and monitored – and restrained only if they became dangerous. Or they could be tranquilised and transferred to the Reykjavík zoo. Or officials could catch, cage, and repatriate strays to Greenland, where, of course, they might also get shot, as part of that country’s hunting quota. The polar-bear killing in Iceland in 2010, like one in 2008, garnered attention domestically and internationally. Many people thought it “unfortunate” that Icelanders were killing bears when most of the world (and some prominent Icelanders) felt that the bears needed special protection. A rich Icelandic businessman offered the use of his private jet, and to pay for the polar bear’s relocation.

A 2011 pie chart by the Canadian government lies at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum. In a kind of moral mathematics, it calculates the dollar value of polar bears: $400,000 per bear. While the chart mentions “intrinsic” and “cultural, artistic, and spiritual values for Aboriginals,” only the bears’ economic worth is given in dollars – it takes up two thirds of the pie chart. “Intrinsic value”, a mere sliver of the pie, is the “bears’ non-utilitarian role in the ecosystem and their right to exist.” In all fairness it must be said that the report also determined how much Canadians would spend to preserve the charismatic species that graces stamps, coins, and, as polar bear–shaped license plates, cars. 

Canadians were willing to pay what was then the price of an iPad – $508 per household – to avoid losing the country’s polar bear population, estimated at 15,000. Considering the price of a trophy hunt or a skin, a dead bear is valued much more highly by a few people than a live one is by many. The less “attractive”, more “alien”, but no less threatened St Lawrence Estuary beluga whale was worth a fifth of a polar bear to the average Canadian. Even wildlife researchers are not immune to ranking North America’s bear species according to their cultural, social, and economic value. For many biologists, brown bears are a notch above black bears. And polar bear biologists think their subject is ‘the cat’s meow’. A bear population’s numbers and status – ‘threatened’ versus ‘common’ – and the funding available for studying it doubtlessly influence this attitude. But more significant, perhaps, is an ever-elusive quality: the animal’s perceived ‘charisma’.

Polar bears in the possessive: political statement at a house in Windsor, Ontario (Photo: Nancy Rae Gilliland)

Like the bear Viking merchants traded to Europe’s nobility, the emblem of nature conservation is precious as a commodity and as a pawn in political maneuvers. Even if we never reach the point where polar bears are fed bear kibble from helicopters, bears today, managed and marketed, no longer seem quite ‘pure’ or genuinely wild. While the blending of consumer logos and wildlife might strike some people as odd, it is also no longer limited to the corporate sector.

The previous president of Polar Bears International, a former marketing director, was dedicated to turning the bear into a recognisable environmental brand, promoting the bears’ situation through guided tours outside Churchill. Still, overexposure and a desensitised public could weaken the message and the ‘Lord of the Arctic’ fade to a new cliché. Some critics think polar bears have already begun to disappear in the white noise of our culture. “The polar bear has lost a lot of its cachet,” the writer Jon Mooallem said in an interview. “It’s become too political. It doesn’t really resonate with environmentalists anymore and it ticks off everyone else.” Summing up the dilemma of image, Mooallem claimed that, “In the 21st century, how species survive, or go to die, may have to do more with Barnum than with Darwin.”

It may have to do even more with Konrad Lorenz, Marshall McLuhan and Jean Piaget. It has to do more with Lorenz, because he ferreted out 
the dynamics between market forces and ecological catastrophes (outlined in his 1973 book Civilized Man’s Eight Deadly Sins); with McLuhan, because he realised how the medium shapes the message; and with Piaget, because he stressed learning from the past and teaching our children well. These three figures supersede Barnum, as better promotion of the polar bear will only get us so far. What really is needed is a drastic restructuring of our society, or at least, our economic system.

With our tendency to mess things up and then try to fix them – culminating at present in desperate schemes of geo-engineering – we find it hard to accept that perhaps the polar bear’s time is running out. And that ours could be too.

The author (pictured above) recently published new essay collection, American Wild, and of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon, from which this essay has been excerpted. He lives in Fairbanks, Alaska, and works as an Arctic wilderness guide.

Photo: Henrik Hansen