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When Al Gore was born, there were 7,000 polar bears in the wild. Today,after severe climate change, only 30,000 remain.

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Controversy over species protection





Warnings about the future of the polar bear are often contrasted with the fact that worldwide population estimates have increased over the past 50 years and are relatively stable today. Some estimates of the global population are around 5,000 to 10,000 in the early 1970s; other estimates were 20,000 to 40,000 during the 1980s.Current estimates put the global population at between 20,000 and 25,000 or 22,000 and 31,000.




There are several reasons for the apparent discordance between past and projected population trends: estimates from the 1950s and 1960s were based on stories from explorers and hunters rather than on scientific surveys. Second, controls of harvesting were introduced that allowed this previously overhunted species to recover. Third, the recent effects of climate change have affected sea ice abundance in different areas to varying degrees.




Debate over the listing of the polar bear under endangered species legislation has put conservation groups and Canada’s Inuit at opposing positions; the Nunavut government and many northern residents have condemned the U.S. initiative to list the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act. Many Inuit believe the polar bear population is increasing, and restrictions on commercial sport-hunting are likely to lead to a loss of income to their communities.




Indigenous folklore





For the indigenous peoples of the Arctic, polar bears have long played an important cultural and material role.Polar bear remains have been found at hunting sites dating to 2,500 to 3,000 years ago and 1,500-year-old cave paintings of polar bears have been found in the Chukchi Peninsula. Indeed, it has been suggested that Arctic peoples’ skills in seal hunting and igloo construction has been in part acquired from the polar bears themselves.




The Inuit and Alaska Natives have many folk tales featuring the bears including legends in which bears are humans when inside their own houses and put on bear hides when going outside, and stories of how the constellation that is said to resemble a great bear surrounded by dogs came into being. These legends reveal a deep respect for the polar bear, which is portrayed as both spiritually powerful and closely akin to humans. The human-like posture of bears when standing and sitting, and the resemblance of a skinned bear carcass to the human body, have probably contributed to the belief that the spirits of humans and bears were interchangeable.




Among the Chukchi and Yupik of eastern Siberia, there was a longstanding shamanistic ritual of “thanksgiving” to the hunted polar bear. After killing the animal, its head and skin were removed and cleaned and brought into the home, and a feast was held in the hunting camp in its honor. To appease the spirit of the bear, traditional song and drum music was played, and the skull was ceremonially fed and offered a pipe. Only once the spirit was appeased was the skull be separated from the skin, taken beyond the bounds of the homestead, and placed in the ground, facing north.




The Nenets of north-central Siberia placed particular value on the talismanic power of the prominent canine teeth. These were traded in the villages of the lower Yenisei and Khatanga rivers to the forest-dwelling peoples further south, who would sew them into their hats as protection against brown bears. It was believed that the “little nephew” (the brown bear) would not dare to attack a man wearing the tooth of its powerful “big uncle”, the polar bear. The skulls of killed polar bears were buried at sacred sites, and altars, called sedyangi, were constructed out of the skulls. Several such sites have been preserved on the Yamal Peninsula.

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