Websailor's Wacky Wildlife World

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A quirky look at wildlife. To be taken with a pinch of salt, but with more than a grain of truth!

'Snow Use Crying...

The last few days have seen something approaching winter here. Ice, frost and cold winds, but no snow as yet. Many holidaymakers have mourned the lack of snow in some ski resorts and other people are suffering quite badly from the cold. Of course, there are those that welcome climate change — or global warming, as they prefer to call it (well, it sounds nicer, doesn't it?). However, there are repercussions from this failure of a good old-fashioned winter.

One of the saddest things that I have seen recently among the myriad 'chocolate box' pictures of polar bears was one of two polar bears marooned on a melting ice flow. Apart from no snow for skiing, most of us won't mind the lack of it. Indeed, thousands of children have never seen snow for real, but for polar bears, snow and ice are essential.

For the first time, the polar bear is classed as endangered on the IUCN Red List. Before Christmas 2006, a TV series in the UK, called Extinct, raised the profile of eight creatures in imminent danger of extinction. It raised awareness of the plight of birds, reptiles and mammals, drawing attention to what the human population could do to help. It also raised funds to help these animals in the process. Those in particular need of help were the Bengal tiger, the giant panda, the mountain gorilla, the hyacinth macaw, the Asian elephant, the leatherback turtle, the orangutan and the polar bear. Each species had the support of a 'celebrity' to plead their cause and the audience were asked to vote for the most deserving cause and to donate if possible.

And the winner was... the Bengal tiger. Largely, I suspect, because of the eloquent plea from the 'celebrity'. £163,000 were raised for the Bengal tiger from telephone votes. The other half of the money from the voting was to be divided between projects to help the remaining seven endangered species. Almost £225,000 was donated and I suspect money is still coming in.

I watched the show very closely and came to the conclusion that the creature most difficult to save and most in need of our help was, in fact, the polar bear. Measures and laws could be put in place that could well save the others from extinction, but saving the polar bear needs a major shift in attitude and policy worldwide.

Polar bears need ice through which to hunt for their main prey, ringed and bearded seals. In late autumn, the pregnant females need deep snow on land in which to dig dens and give birth to and care for their cubs. These are born after about two months. The tiny cubs survive on fat-rich milk from their mothers until they are large enough to explore the sea ice in March/April — if it is still there. It stands to reason that the mother must be extremely well-fed before any of this can happen, or neither she nor the cubs would survive. No popping out to the supermarket for an extra bottle of milk for them!

Unfortunately, the ice is melting fast and early, and some is gone for good. Polar bears can swim long distances at a speed of about six miles per hour (faster than a narrowboat or mobility scooter!) but they are finding it harder and harder to find solid ice. Increasingly they are starving and studies have found that cub survival rates are plummeting, adult bodyweights are declining and strandings and drownings are increasing.

Healthy adult males should measure 200 - 250cm (6.5ft - 8ft) and weigh between 400 and 600 kgs (880-1300 lbs), with females about half that size. Recent film has shown some rather thin, sad-looking specimens. Not only do the polar bears suffer from pollution from the developed world and global warming, but they are also coming in to conflict more and more with the oil industry. They are uniquely designed to cope with Arctic conditions, with a black skin to absorb heat, a thick layer of woolly fur next to the skin and long, hollow hairs on top to keep the fur from matting in bitterly cold water. Yet in spite of all this, they are struggling to survive.

The Arctic supports other wildlife which is now at risk: hares, voles, lemmings, ground squirrels, wolves, caribou and ermine, less than ten species of bird and more than ninety species of rare plants. Oh, and that is not to mention a mere 4 million or so human beings! Increasingly, polar bears are coming into contact with human habitation as they search desperately for food, putting human lives more at risk.

Once before, the polar bear was hunted almost to extinction, but in 1973 an international treaty was signed, giving protection to this magnificent animal, and numbers increased substantially. This time it is even more difficult.

Is all that work to be wasted? Are we going to cry over the lack of snow to ski on, or are we going to do something about it? Every single thing we do each day has an impact on the environment somewhere (often thousands of miles away), so it makes sense to save energy, reuse, recycle, reduce waste, use less packaging and think before you buy anything! A pain, I know, but it soon becomes a habit. Just a thought: would you like to stand toe-to-toe with a polar bear and explain why we are doing nothing? No, neither would I!

If none of that appeals to you, or you do it already (well, of course you do!) then you can still make a donation to the Extinct fund and gain more information about what is being done to save the Polar bears here.

It would be a dreadful shame if such beautiful, charismatic animals were allowed to disappear. 'Snow joke!

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