The changing fortunes of the polar bear

The key moments in the history of Earth's largest carnivore. 

Saving the polar bear? opening spread.

The key moments in the history of Earth's largest carnivore. 

1660s Europeans arrive in the Arctic in search of new natural resources to exploit, and the first commercial hunting of polar bears begins.

EARLY 1890s Polar bear hunting gets serious – largely perpetrated by whaling fleets. It has been estimated that, between 1890 and 1935, 15,500 polar bear hides were traded in Hudson Bay alone.

1950s Numbers of bears killed keep rising, as sport and trophy hunting come to the fore. By 1960, hunters are taking 700 bears a year; by 1970, the figure is an estimated 1,400 a year.

1965 Scientists meet in Alaska for the first polar bear conference. Their estimates of bear numbers vary: the Soviets say “up to 8,000”, Americans “over 10,000” and Canadians “more than 20,000”.

1966–67 Pursuit of polar bears enters a new phase: the capturing and marking of animals to gather data. Scientists realise that bears live in discrete sub-populations.

1970 The IUCN’s newly formed Polar Bear Specialist Group meets for the first time. Delegates express concern that harvesting of bears might be too great in areas such as Alaska and Svalbard.

1973 ‘Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears’ is signed in Oslo. Hunting is regulated, but indigenous peoples retain the right to a harvest by traditional means, which continues today.

1980s Polar bear tourism begins in the tiny Canadian town of Churchill, on the west coast of Hudson Bay in the province of Manitoba.

1999 The Canadian Wildlife Service says Hudson Bay sea-ice breaks up three weeks earlier than in 1979. Their report is one of the first to warn that climate change could affect polar bears.

2007 A US Geological Survey team concludes that the number of polar bears will fall by two-thirds worldwide by 2050 if greenhouse gas emissions continue at the same rate.

2008 The US Fish and Wildlife Service lists the polar bear as Threatened under the USA’s Endangered Species Act.

2008 As concerns grow over melting sea-ice, a radio-collared female bear makes a non-stop 687km swim in the Beaufort Sea.

2013 A proposal by the Russian and US governments to upgrade the polar bear’s listing to Appendix I on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species is rejected.


View a polar bear photo gallery by Florian Schulz.

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