Polar bears polarize, and that’s not just a play on words. For on the one hand, the king of the Arctic is considered a traditional resource for the Arctic peoples, who revere polar bears but also hunt them. On the other hand, many see him as an icon for climate protection in a region that is warming up to four times faster than the rest of the world and should therefore not be hunted as well. Two renowned researchers have now also made this appeal, calling on the Greenlandic government to place a very special population of the predator in southeastern Greenland completely under protection.
No hunting of polar bears in southeastern Greenland is demanded by the two well-known polar bear researchers Erik W. Born and Øystein Wiig in aninterview with the Greenlandic newspaper Sermitsiaq. They are calling on the Greenland government to completely protect the estimated two hundred polar bears in the region because of their unique genetics and adaptations. “The population is very special because it has a genetic profile that sets it apart from all other polar bear populations,” Born explains in the interview. However, it is not known at the moment whether her demand will be heard.
The scientists’ claim is based on the findings of a study last year in which both were involved. The study concluded after detailed genetic studies that the polar bear population in southeast Greenland is isolated from its northern relatives in northeast Greenland and from the population to the west in Davis Strait. This isolation, which has lasted for about 200 years, has led to a new genetic profile of the animals there, which the researchers believe is also reflected in particular adaptations to the warming habitat. “This means that the small southeast Greenland population has some genes that should be preserved for the future, as these genes may be of great importance for the survival of the entire polar bear species, as this is a group of animals that is genetically and behaviorally adapted to a warmer climate with less sea ice,” Born says.
Born and Wiig’s appeal could well carry weight in Greenland. For although both have been emeritus scientists for years, they are still frequently called upon as consultants and co-authors for numerous papers on polar bears. Both are considered as proven specialists for arctic mammals and led also successively the expert group for polar bears with the international nature and protection of species group IUCN. This group maintains the generally recognized and well-known “Red List of Threatened Species,” on which the polar bear is classified as “endangered” globally. In addition, Erk W. Born still works as a consultant at the Greenland National Institute for Natural Resources. So his and Øystein Wiig’s demand for the protection of the animals could well find a hearing with the present government.
But the call will not be easy to implement. Because although the southeast of Greenland is very sparsely populated, it will be difficult to impose a complete hunting ban on the inhabitants there. Polar bears are a small part of their livelihood, but hunting is part of their traditional way of life. And the Greenlandic government recently showed that it doesn’t necessarily listen to expert opinion with a decision to allow hunting of the rare narwhals and belugas in East Greenland. Moreover, according to the study, the survival of southeast Greenland polar bears is also based on the special geographic circumstances in the area, with its numerous outlet glaciers that produce a lot of ice, and it would be necessary to monitor the animals’ ability to survive in the longer term. But for Born and Wiig, it’s clear that the animals there are unique and represent a glimmer of hope for the species’ survival. And their genetics do seem to make them able to cope with warmer conditions. But it does not make them invulnerable.
Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal
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