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Time to rethink polar bear conservation and welfare?

Dr Jake Veasey

Nov 16, 2022

Care for the Rare brings together an international coalition of experts from around the world to update welfare priorities for polar bears - a species of carnivore that has been shown to be the most sensitive to captivity.

A report detailing the ground-breaking investigation into the welfare priorities of captive polar bears which was sponsored by Yorkshire Wildlife Park has been released to coincide with COP27 and International Polar Bear week. 

The unique undertaking utilised the emerging Animal Welfare Priority Identification System (AWPIS), a process that quantitively interrogates a species' behavioural ecology to establish ranked behavioural and cognitive priorities in order to optimise welfare through management and facility design. This assessment brought together 35 leading welfare scientists and polar bear experts, active in both the wild and captive environments, representing 26 organisations from eight countries who collectively provided over 16,000 data points from which the final results are harvested.

The report sets out a series of discoveries regarding the fundamental needs of polar bears as well as recommendations relating to habitat design, nutrition and management to ensure the environment and care captive polar bears experience are truly tailored to their needs. As well as providing a foundation for welfare prioritisation, the process provided a gap-analysis by assessing the extent to which experts felt priorities were being catered for in captive environment for polar bears.

Canada is home to at least two-thirds of the world’s polar bears, and so it’s appropriate that this international undertaking was hosted from Canada, and had the support of the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, as well as all Canadian polar bear facilities, who along with Canadian universities, contributed the largest number of participants for the assessment. With polar bear numbers projected to decline by 30% by 2050, the future looks increasingly bleak for the species, and so it is crucial that Canadians urgently consider radical, ethical solutions to actively address this unfolding conservation and welfare tragedy in our backyard.

Efforts to minimise the impact of the climate emergency must of course continue, and urgently accelerate as COP27 has made clear, but serious considerations for a plan B for polar bears, based around climate adaption is already overdue. Sea-ice losses in the Arctic are accelerating and will continue for decades beyond carbon neutrality. Added to this, human activity in Canada’s north is on the rise meaning human-bear conflict will inevitably increase, leading to more “problem” and orphaned bears being destroyed or sent to captive environments, that may not meet their needs. 

This report provides a manifesto for an ethical alternative to euthanising wild bears that cannot be safely returned to the wild. It also supports the aspirations of Bill S241 / the Jane Goodall Act in dramatically elevating standards of welfare within Canada for species such as polar bears, that are particularly susceptible to welfare challenges in captive environments. 

The assessment demonstrated that from a cognitive and behavioural perspective, polar bears have more in common with Amur tigers than other bear species. Both range widely, are more or less entirely carnivorous, consuming relatively few, large meals. And so the generalisation of management and facility design of omnivorous, less wide-ranging bear species to polar bears, is likely highly detrimental to their welfare. But perhaps the most notable finding was that walking was the most important priority, not considered a physiological necessity like eating, drinking and sleeping. It also become clear that priorities need to be considered as part of an integrated collective rather than as a series of individual objectives; and so providing bears opportunities to move with purpose and make decisions to achieve biologically relevant outcomes emerges as the most important objective for this species. Care for the Rare is already working with an international, multidisciplinary team in addressing similar issues for tigers and elephants, that is intended to radically reimagine their habitats and management, in order to replicate the functional complexity of the wild within captive environments. Its hoped that work on similar solutions for polar bears will start soon. 

To find out more about the work Care for the Rare is undertaking to reimagine the spaces and lives of wide-ranging animals in managed environments, or if you think an AWPIS could help you improve the care of a species you are concerned about or are responsible for, or because you are about to build a facility for that species and want to know what really matters to them, please reach out and connect with us.


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