Polar bears are increasingly feeding on garbage | Polarjournal
In a garbage dump in Chukotka, Russia, polar bears rummage through the remains of human civilization in search of food. (Photo: Pikabu)

No area is more affected by climate change and global warming than the Arctic. This has serious effects on fauna and flora. The polar bears’ icy habitat is diminishing and they are increasingly staying away from their usual food sources for extended periods of time. Instead of feeding on seals, a new study has found that polar bears supplement their diet with garbage. This is likely to become a growing threat to the species.

Even when facing burning garbage dumps polar bears do not stop on the search for usable food. (Photo: Polar Bears International)

New research has warned that polar bears in the Arctic are consuming more garbage as a substitute for food in the face of rising temperatures. They reportedly spend more time fasting or searching trash piles instead of hunting seals on sea ice. This is also leading to increasing conflicts between humans and polar bears, according to an international team of scientists.

Dependence on trash is harmful to Arctic creatures

The paper, published by Cambridge University Press, was co-authored by eight international scientists. It rings the alarm about the impact of human domestic waste on polar bears. Driven by hunger, polar bears are increasingly attracted to its consumption.

The published document also shows the negative dietary interactions, including deaths, between polar bears and humans in Russia, Alaska, Canada and Svalbard.

In February 2019, there were reports that there was a “mass invasion” of polar bears in Russia’s Belushya Guba, on Novaya Zemlya, when 52 polar bears entered the village to rummage through an open garbage dump. In addition, the bears tried to enter local buildings.

Another 60 polar bears were spotted in the garbage dump in December 2019 in Ryrkaypiy, a village of 600 people in Chukotka. The bears stayed in the area until the sea ice froze again in the fall.

Andrew Derocher, co-author and professor at the University of Alberta: “There have been some human deaths in the eastern Canadian Arctic. Surprisingly, many places where there were no serious problems are now facing an increasing number of conflicts between humans and polar bear populations.” (Photo: Andrew Derocher)

Rise in temperatures drives bears into human settlements

In the past, polar bears roamed the sea ice to hunt for seals, their main food source. But because temperatures rise four times faster in the Arctic Ocean than elsewhere, the ice melts faster each spring and forms later in the fall. This, in turn, drives bears to either go hungry for long periods of time or to scavenge in human settlements to find food.

In this dangerous trend, polar bears are increasingly ingesting plastic packaging, metal, toxic chemicals and even wood. The Cambridge University paper also points out that polar bears are often euthanized by wildlife officials due to public safety concerns.

Lockable trash cans are almost impossible for bears to crack. What works for brown bears should also work for polar bears. (Photo: unknown)

Waste and garbage dumps to be better protected

Governments are advised to take stricter measures to improve waste management by erecting fences outside landfills. This will improve awareness about burning trash and install bear-resistant trash cans. Because bears return to places where they found food, the paper advises taking swift action to control food-related polar bear problems by blocking their access to garbage.

Heiner Kubny, PolarJournal

Link to the study: Smith et al (2022) Oryx 1-10 Anthropogenic food: An emerging threat to polar bears; doi:10.1017/S0030605322000278

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