Richard Ellis: Polar bears are probably the most charismatic mammals on earth. They are beautiful, powerful, popular, misunderstood--and seriously endangered. After all the other books I’ve written, this seems like the book I was born to write.
Question: You begin the book with your own intimate encounter with a polar bear at the North Pole in 1994. Can you describe what brought you there, and why this encounter was so remarkable?
Richard Ellis: As a lecturer on Arctic wildlife, I was leading a cruise to the North Pole for the American Museum of Natural History (New York). We were on a Russian icebreaker, north of Spitsbergen, when we spotted this bear right alongside the boat. I photographed it (from the deck of the ship) until I ran out of film. (That was 1994, back in the days of film cameras.) At that time, the North Pole was covered with ice, about 8 feet thick. Within a few years, however, the Arctic ice cap had begun to melt, and ships arriving at the Pole found only open water. For me, the bear and the thick ice (the Russian sailors chopped a hole in the ice and we went for a dip at the North Pole) clearly showed the Arctic as it was 15 years ago--and will never be the same again.
Question: In your opinion, what is the biggest misconception about polar bears?
Richard Ellis: People think of polar bears as man-eaters, always ready to attack (and eat) people they encounter on the ice. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, polar bears are intensely curious about anything that appears in their otherwise desolate landscape, and will approach and investigate sleds, tents, ships, people, dogs and anything else that looks unusual to them. Unfortunately for the bears, their curiosity is easily mistaken for aggression--if a bear pokes its head inside your tent, you might not want to wait to see what it had in mind--so bears have almost always been approached with a "shoot first, ask questions later" attitude. Yes, there have been polar bear attacks on people, but people attacks on bears probably outnumber them 1,000 to one.
Question: Unlike some other books on polar bears, you trace man’s history with the bear back to the 16th century. What were these early encounters like?
Richard Ellis: When the first explorers and whalers headed north, they encountered all sorts of unexpected animals, including bowhead whales (the object of the Greenland "fishery"), narwhals, belugas, and of course, the stately, white, ghostlike bears. People almost always shot the bears they saw, often because they felt threatened (see above), but also for target practice. A big beautiful animal standing on the ice was too good an opportunity to pass up.
Question: The polar bear has become a media star in recent years, both as the poster child for global warming and as cute cubs (like Knut) are born in zoos around the world. Their political significance has increased greatly and you compare this to the profile of whales during the 1980s. Has this increased attention been making a difference?
Richard Ellis: The polar bear has become a sort of double-barreled icon: On one hand, its cuteness has endowed with the kind of popularity in zoos, TV shows, and advertising that is unequalled by any other creature (except perhaps penguins, which are not nearly so cuddly); and on the other, the lone bear, traversing the endless icy wastelands in search of food or a mate has come to symbolize the precarious state of the Arctic itself. But too many people are more concerned with oil and gas prospecting in the Arctic, and they will not let the bears--no matter how cute or endangered--stand in their way.
Question: In your opinion, is the polar bear doomed, or are there still steps that we can take to save bears and their habitat?
Richard Ellis: The polar bear can be saved by reducing greenhouse gases to curtail global warming. Some scientists believe that we have already reached the tipping point, and even if we were to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to zero tomorrow--which seems somewhat unlikely--the Arctic ice would continue to melt at an increasingly accelerated rate. As it melts, more sunlight hits the water, which means more warmer water, which means more ice melting.
Because polar bears have evolved in a very specialized environment--the ice and waters of the Arctic--they cannot easily adapt to another way of life. Some polar bears have wandered south in search of food, and have found themselves so far from their natural food supply that they starved to death. Can’t we simply move them to the Antarctic where there is still plenty of ice and plenty of penguins to eat? In a word: NO. They would be as out of place on the Antarctic ice sheet as they would be in the rain forest. Antarctic seals some of which are almost as big and aggressive as polar bears do not den under the ice, and the bears could not possibly catch them in the water. If they were to feed on penguins, which they certainly could catch (and also feed on the eggs and chicks), they would quickly endanger the various penguin species, some of which are in trouble already. Finally, the seasons in the Southern Hemisphere are the reverse of those in the north, so transplanted bears would be completely turned around, with their denning and hunting seasons reversed.
Polar bears—fierce and majestic—have captivated us for centuries. Feared by explorers, revered by the Inuit, and beloved by zoo goers everywhere, they are a symbol for the harsh beauty and muscular grace of the Arctic. But as global warming threatens the ice caps’ integrity, the polar bear has also come to symbolize the environmental peril that has arisen due to harmful human practices. In the past twenty years alone, the world population of polar bears has shrunk by half. Today they number just 22,000.
Urgent and stirring, On Thin Ice is both a celebration and a rallying cry on behalf of one of earth’s greatest natural treasures.
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