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Stranded polar bears drowning in large numbers
http://www.int.iol.co.za/index.php? set_id=1&click_id=143&art_id=vn20051009102733324C727118

Polar bears face extinction on melting planet

     October 09 2005 at 06:40AM   Independent Online.
By Anchorage Carrell and Severin Carrell

The polar bear is one of the natural world's most famous predators -  
the king of the Arctic wastelands. But, like its vast Arctic home, the  
polar bear is under unprecedented threat. Both are disappearing with  
alarming speed.

Thinning ice and longer summers are destroying the bears' habitat, and  
as the ice floes shrink, the desperate animals are driven by starvation  
into human settlements - to be shot. Stranded polar bears are drowning  
in large numbers as they try to swim hundreds of kilometres to find  
increasingly scarce ice floes. Local hunters find their corpses  
floating on seas once coated in a thick skin of ice.

It is a phenomenon that frightens the native people who live around the  
Arctic. Many fear their children will never know the polar bear.

'Are we fighting a losing battle?'
"The ice is moving further and further north," said Charlie Johnson,  
64, an Alaskan Nupiak from Nome, in the state's far west. "In the  
Bering Sea the ice leaves earlier and earlier. On the north slope, the  
ice is retreating as far as 500km or 600km offshore."

Last year, hunters found half a dozen bears that had drowned about  
320km north of Barrow, on Alaska's northern coast. "It seems they had  
tried to swim for shore... A polar bear might be able to swim 150km but  
not 600km."

His alarming testimony, given at a conference on global warming and  
native communities held in the Alaskan city of Anchorage last month, is  
just one story of the many changes happening across the globe. Climate  
change threatens the survival of thousands of species - a threat  
unparalleled since the last Ice Age, which ended some 10 000 years ago.

The vast majority, scientists warned this week, are migratory animals -  
sperm whales, polar bears, gazelles, garden birds and turtles - whose  
survival depends on the intricate web of habitats, food supplies and  
weather conditions which, for some species, can stretch for more than  
10 000km.

Every link of that chain is slowly but perceptibly altering.

'There is an earlier break-up of ice'
Europe's most senior ecologists and conservationists met in Aviemore,  
in the Scottish Highlands, this week for a conference on the impact of  
climate change on migratory species, an event organised by the British  
government as part of its presidency of the European Union.

It is a well-chosen location. Aviemore's major winter employer - skiing  
- is a victim of warmer winters. Ski slopes in the Cairngorms, which  
once had snow caps year round on the highest peaks, have recently been  
closed down when the winter snow failed. The snow bunting, ptarmigan  
and dotterel - some of Scotland's rarest birds - are also given little  
chance of survival as their harsh and marginal winter environments  
disappear.

A report presented in Aviemore reveals that this is a pattern being  
repeated around the world. In the sub-Arctic tundra, caribou are  
threatened by "multiple climate-change impacts".

Deeper snow at higher latitudes makes it harder for caribou herds to  
travel. Faster and more regular "freeze-thaw" cycles make it harder to  
dig out food under thick crusts of ice-covered snow. Wetter and warmer  
winters are cutting calving success and increasing insect attacks and  
disease.

The same holds true for migratory wading birds such as the red knot and  
the northern teal. The endangered spoon-billed sandpiper, too, faces  
extinction, the report says. They are of "key concern". It says species  
"cannot shift further north as their climates become warmer. They have  
nowhere left to go... We can see, very clearly, that most migratory  
species are drifting towards the poles."

The report, commissioned by Britain's department for the environment,  
food and rural affairs (Defra), makes gloomy predictions about the  
world's animal populations.

"The habitats of migratory species most vulnerable to climate change  
were found to be tundra, cloud forest, sea ice and low-lying coastal  
areas," it states. "Increased droughts and lowered water tables,  
particularly in key areas used as 'staging posts' on migration, were  
also identified as key threats stemming from climate change."
Some of its findings include:

Four out of five migratory birds listed by the UN face problems ranging  
from lower water tables to increased droughts, spreading deserts and  
shifting food supplies in their crucial "fuelling stations" as they  
migrate.

One-third of turtle nesting sites in the Caribbean - home to  
diminishing numbers of green, hawksbill and loggerhead turtles - would  
be swamped by a sea level rise of 50cm. This would "drastically" reduce  
their numbers. At the same time, shallow waters used by the endangered  
Mediterranean monk seal, dolphins, dugongs and manatees will slowly  
disappear.

Whales, salmon, cod, penguins and kittiwakes are affected by shifts in  
distribution and abundance of krill and plankton, which has "declined  
in places to a hundredth or thousandth of former numbers because of  
warmer sea-surface temperatures".

Increased dam-building, a response to water shortages and growing  
demand, is affecting the natural migration patterns of tucuxi, South  
American river dolphins, "with potentially damaging results".

Fewer chiffchaffs, blackbirds, robins and song thrushes are migrating  
from Britain due to warmer winters. Egg-laying is also two to three  
weeks earlier than 30 years ago, showing a change in the birds'  
biological clocks.

The science magazine Nature predicted last year that up to 37 percent  
of terrestrial species could become extinct by 2050. And the Defra  
report presents more problems than solutions. Tackling these crises  
will be far more complicated than just building more nature reserves -  
a problem that Jim Knight, the British nature conservation minister,  
acknowledges.

A key issue in sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, is profound poverty.  
After visiting the Democratic Republic of Congo last month, Knight  
found it difficult to condemn local people eating gorillas, already  
endangered.

"You can't blame an individual who doesn't know how they're going to  
feed their family every day from harvesting what's around them. That's  
a real challenge," he said.

And the clash between nature and human need - a critical issue across  
Africa - is likely to worsen. As its savannah and forests begin  
shifting south, migratory animals will shift along with them. Some of  
the continent's major national parks and reserves - such as the  
Masai-Mara or Serengeti - may also have to move their boundaries if  
their game species, the elephant and wildebeest, are to be properly  
protected. This could bring conflict with local communities.

There is also a gap in scientific knowledge between what has been  
discovered about the impact of climate change in the industrialised  
world and in less developed countries. Similarly, fisheries experts  
know more about species such as cod and haddock than they do about fish  
that humans don't eat. Many environmentalists are pessimistic about the  
prospects of halting, let alone reversing, this trend. "Are we fighting  
a losing battle? Yes, we probably are," one naturalist said..

Britain, which is attempting to put climate change at the top of the  
global agenda during its presidency of the G8 group of industrialised  
nations, is still struggling to persuade the American, Japanese and  
Australian governments to admit that mankind's gas emissions are the  
biggest threat. These three continue to insist there is no proof that  
climate change is largely manmade.

And many British environmentalists suspect that Prime Minister Tony  
Blair's public commitment to a tougher global treaty to replace the  
Kyoto Protocol, aimed at a 60 percent cut in carbon dioxide emissions  
by 2050, is not being backed up by the government in private.

Despite US President George Bush's resistance to a new global climate  
treaty, many US states are being far more radical. Even the G8  
communiqué after the Gleneagles summit in July had Bush confirming that  
the climate was warming.

In Alaska last week, satellite images released by two US universities  
and Nasa revealed that the amount of sea-ice cover over the polar ice  
cap has fallen for the past four years. "A long-term decline is under  
way," said Walt Meier of the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre.

The Arctic's native communities don't need satellite images to tell  
them this. John Keogak, 47, an Inuvialuit from Canada's North West  
Territories, hunts polar bears, seals, caribou and musk ox.

"The polar bear is part of our culture," he said. "They use the ice as  
a hunting ground for the seals. If there is no ice, there is no way the  
bears will be able to catch the seals."

He said the number of bears was decreasing and feared his children  
might not be able to hunt them. He said: "There is an earlier break-up  
of ice, a later freeze-up. Now it's more rapid. Something is  
happening."

And now, said Keogak, there was evidence that polar bears are facing an  
unusual competitor - the grizzly bear. As the sub-Arctic tundra and  
wastelands thaw, the grizzly is moving north, colonising areas where  
they were previously unable to survive.

Life for Alaska's polar bears is rapidly becoming very precarious. -  
Foreign Service

This article was originally published on page 15 of Sunday Independent  
on October 09, 2005
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