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On Thin Ice with Churchill's Polar Bears

Churchill's Polar Bears

Sarah Gold

Like just about everyone growing up in the 1970s and ’80s, I was captivated by polar bears. The Life on Earth nature programs I watched as a child, and the photo essays I pored over in my parents’ issues of National Geographic, all painted the same majestic picture of the world’s largest land carnivores. The images of bears striding through pristine snowscapes, perched gracefully atop ice floes, and tussling with their cubs had given me a peculiar sense of security; even if I never got to see them, it was good to know these magnificent creatures were holding the fort at the lonely, frozen apex of the world.

In recent years, though, the media portrait of polar bears has changed. Now televised footage of these regal animals is sure to be accompanied by a catalogue of sobering facts. Listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act since 2007, Ursus maritimus, according to a U.S. Geological Survey report, may be close to extinct by 2050. The culprit, of course, is climate change—rising temperatures that have already caused dramatic recession of the Arctic sea ice where bears hunt and feed (nearly 23 percent, according to one study). In their more southerly habitats, polar bear populations over the past three decades have declined by more than 20 percent.

No child raised on David Attenborough could fail to agonize over these statistics. At least I couldn’t. One day last summer, after watching a particularly upsetting Animal Planet program about starving polar bear cubs, I moaned to my husband that soon the world’s polar bears would be gone.

“Not all of them,” he replied, consolingly. “I’m sure there will still be some in zoos.”

That settled it. Within a week, I’d researched and signed up for a three-day “Classic Polar Bear Tour” with Natural Habitat Adventures (NHA), an ecologically minded outfitter with a special affinity for endangered wildlife. I didn’t want to see polar bears in cement enclosures, lounging on painted “glaciers” and paddling in chlorinated pools. I wanted to see them where they belonged—while they still belonged somewhere.

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