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Suvival on Thin Ice

100 days before the 2002 Earth Summit, the WWF has called for Arctic states to take action to rescue the polar bear's environment. But the leading polar bear state, Canada, has still not ratified the Kyoto protocol.


The Arctic polar bear's natural habitat is seriously in danger

Louise is 15 years of age, and at the most reproductive prime of her life. At current, she spends most of her time on the western edge of the Arctic ice zone, hunting harp seals.

Louise is a polar bear. In the spring and summer, she often stays close to the pack ice near open water where she can prey upon bearded seals and their pups.

However, as the ice in the Barents Sea seems abnormal this year due to a warm spring and strong storms from the south, this favourite hunting spot of hers may not stay quite the way it is.

Need for immediate action

Polar bears depend on sea ice for survival. They hunt on pack ice throughout winter and spring, coming ashore as the ice retreats north during summer. As the ebb and flow of the polar ice determines the polar bears' fate, so does global warming, which leads to a reduction of arctic sea ice. Polar bears, like Louise, pay the price.

In its Third Assessment Report, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said: "Climate change in the polar region is expected to be among the greatest of any region on earth - The Arctic is extremely vulnerable to climate change, and major physical, ecological, and econmic impacts are expected to appear rapidly".

Arctic nations should be among those leading in the cause against climate change. Instead, Canada, Russia, and the United States – home to the majority of the world’s 22,000 polar bears - are the world’s largest producers of greenhouse gases, thought responsible for global warming. And these countries have been among the slowest to react to climate change.

"Arctic nations that are home to most of the world’s polar bears should be leading the charge against global warming", Jennifer Morgan, Director of WWF’s Climate Change Programme says. "It is an imperative that they (Canada, Russia, and the US) all ratify the Kyoto Climate Treaty as soon as possible".

But Canada, where 60 per cent of the world’s polar bears can be found, has still not made a decision to ratify the Kyoto protocol, the global treaty to curb climate warming.

World Summit in Johannesburg

A hundred days before world leaders meet in Johannesburg for the World Summit on Sustainable Development, the World Wildlife Fund has called for action to save the polar bear.

Ten years ago, the international community met for the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. The result, a blueprint for sustainable development, called Agenda 21, was considered a "conceptual breakthrough".

Kofi Annan

However, according to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan (photo), progress since then has been slower than anticipated, and has often been overshadowed in the policy-making process by more immediate problems, such as conflicts, globalization, and most recently, terrorism.

But he says, the Johannesburg Summit, offers humanity "a chance to restore the momentum that had been felt so palpably after the Earth Summit."

This chance lies in the ratification of the Kyoto climate treaty, the follow-up of 1992’s Agenda 21 - possibly in Johannesburg.

The protocol's target is to reduce global warming gases from industrialised nations by 5 per cent in the coming decade. However, before it can become sustainable law, it still needs to be signed by all nations, including the US, Canada, and Russia.

Too little, too late

But by then, it may be too late for Louise.

While world leaders discuss and debate later this year in Johannesburg, users can closely track the polar bear who was tagged by the WWF, on the Fund’s polar bear website.

They can watch her on her hunt for food, and a retreat.

Eisbär in Alaska

In 2000, Louise had two cubs. She produced her litter in a part of the Arctic called Kong Karls Land. As polar bears are said to repeat their patterns, she is likely to return there this year, for her second litter. But it is hard to say whether she will find this secluded spot the same way as it was, two years ago.

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