New Delhi: For a millennium, the majestic, lily-white polar bear has lorded over the frozen wastes of the Arctic.

But if two Russian experts are to be believed, the enigmatic "monarch of the ice" could be extinct in 25 years due to global warming and human incursions into their traditional habitat.

"If current policies are not changed, we can lose polar bears, which currently number 20,000-25,000 globally, within one (human) generation," Nikita Ovsyanikov, member of the polar bear specialist group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), told reporters. Ovsyanikov and his compatriot, Masha Vorontsova, director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare in Russia, were here for the 21st International Conference on Bear Research and Management organised by the environment and forests ministry and many wildlife NGOs.

The polar bear (or Ursinus Maritimus), the largest member of the Ursidae (bear) family, is also the largest terrestrial land carnivore and is found largely within the Arctic Circle encompassing the Arctic Ocean, its surrounding seas and land masses.

"Today, this area belongs to five nations: Denmark (which administers Greenland), Norway (which administers the Svalbard archipelago), Canada, the United States (of which Alaska is a part) and Russia," said Ovsyanikov. So, why is the polar bear in grave danger? "It mainly faces threats such as habitat loss due to global warming and continuing human incursions into the Arctic, pollution, hunting for sport and subsistence as well as trade in body parts," he added.

Trouble started with white European expansion and colonisation of the Arctic. The Europeans brought modern hunting practices and the notion of supply and demand of bear parts dictated by market forces. Everything has gone downhill after that.In the later part of the twentieth century, the five nations finally woke up to the threat."The Soviet Union banned all hunting in 1956," Vorontsova told reporters.

According to some estimates, each year, approximately 600 polar bears are hunted in Canada and the parts of 441 are internationally traded."There is a growing market for bear pelts in Russia and China. The other threat facing polar bears is global warming."It is impacting populations in the Russian Arctic," said Ovsyanikov."A high percentage of cubs are lost. Females can't breed. Individuals become famished. They have to survive on land as coastal refugees, instead of pack ice lost to warming. Also, there is pollution, oil drilling and increased susceptibility to diseases."


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