This article is one of my meditations, where I first think and write about something from my own knowledge and point of view, and then research it and write some more….
One of the rites of passage of a child’s scientific learning is to understand that polar bears and penguins only meet in zoos and cartoons, never in the wild. But what if it made sense to change that?
The polar bear’s habitat has been changing due to global warming, leaving the bears with less and less sea ice to use as a hunting platform. With less ice, the bears have to swim great distances to find prey. Increasingly, this has pushed them past their limits and many bears either starve or drown.
So I had the idea, why not move some polar bears to the Antarctic, where there’s still plenty of ice and there is a solid land mass that supports that ice as well as several species that could provide food?
It seems like a pretty good idea, though I was only half serious, I think. I mean, just because nature never allowed polar bears to migrate to the Antarctic doesn’t mean they wouldn’t do well there. And while the penguins there would probably make great eating, I don’t think the bears would ever be able to eat all of them.
I have to admit I didn’t “meditate” on this idea very long. I thought it was a great idea, maybe one that no one had thought of.
So then I googled the idea, and what do you know? I wasn’t the first to think of it. Apparently, a lot of people have.
In fact, it’s not a completely crackpot idea, though it is controversial. Some scientists and conservationists think it may be the only way to save the wild polar bear. But others feel strongly that this would be a bad move.
One argument against is that the introduction of polar bears would be like that of any other non-native species: it would upset the balance of the current ecosystem. In particular, the polar bear would be introduced into a region that currently has no large predator. Penguins and Weddell seals have no enemies on the ice or land, so they can carry out their breeding unmolested. The introduction of a top predator would make them incredibly vulnerable.
The Weddell seal, for example, has no predators on land and so has no natural wariness. They are very tolerant of the approach of humans, and probably would react much the same to polar bears.
However, the introduction of non-native species is usually a matter of a smaller, prolific species that can quickly breed out of control. Large mammals such as polar bears breed very slowly, only one or two cubs per year, and they are easily found. If a polar bear introduction were carried out, it would progress very gradually and be reversible if necessary, either by recapture or, in the worst case, hunting.
Another argument against is that the relocated polar bears would no longer be completely “wild”, in fact, Anarctica would no longer be wild. It would be an “engineered” environment.
It’s true that it’s one of the natural facts of our planet is that polar bears only exist at the northern pole, and penguins only exist south of the equator. If we change that, it’s true that we have changed our world in a significant way, making it less natural. The questions is, which is worse, and the least natural, antarctic polar bears or no polars bears? My gut feeling is that I want polar bears in the wild somewhere, even if that makes the wild less wild.
In researching polar bear introduction to the antarctic, I also came across the idea of moving other large species. One example would be to relocate the large mammals of the African plains, currently threatened by poachers and development, to the plains of North America. The result could be likened to a very large wild animal park, which doesn’t sound so good, but if it were large enough, it could be as big as any African national park, and much safer from poachers.
You could say that two wrongs don’t make a right, that we can’t make up for global warming by rearranging the biomes of the species we want to save. But I want to continue to have polar bears and elephants around, no matter how much carbon keeps coming out of the world economy. And besides, the idea sounds cool.