By Paulette Roberge
We were exhorted to “walk the talk.” So all 21 of us vowed to take up the eco-challenge – not to shower all week. Not such an impressive undertaking, you might point out, except we were living in extremely cramped quarters on a Tundra Buggy Lodge on the shores of Hudson Bay.
Partly it was to win bragging rights over the previous week’s zookeepers, also guests of Polar Bears International, who, in not showering, claimed a small victory in the battle to reduce carbon emissions. Not to be outdone, we rationed water use even further. Brushing teeth became optional, for instance. As one PBI staffer said encouragingly, there was early frost so we wouldn’t attract flies.
By week’s end, we were sad – and relieved – to part ways. Mostly we were charged up. We were zoo-based educators and communicators privileged to be experiencing the tundra, learning about polar bear science – and tasked with inspiring people to action.
“Lodge” conjures up an image of a remote, rustic inn nestled on a lake with roaring fire places. Wrong. Here, several buggies on massive wheels are strung together – two sleeping cars with bunks which are attached to a “lounge” buggy, “kitchen/dining” buggy and engine buggy. Fastening the denim curtain to a Velcro strip above your bunk provides a modicum of privacy and helps regulate the temperature. It’s basic, cosy, intense – and thrilling to be observing wildlife right under the wall-to-wall windows and in daily tundra excursions on the travel buggy.
The days are packed with discussions, presentations, brainstorming sessions and team blogs. Naturalists, scientists, climate change and species experts (including my esteemed colleague Geoff York of WWF’s Global Arctic Programme) join us by Skype. We also connect with a couple of US elementary schools through Skype.
The Manitoba government dispenses only 18 Buggy permits in an effort to contain damage to the province’s largest Wildlife Management Area. Only locals (and researchers) can venture on the tundra without a permit. “Polar bear viewing was unregulated before this area was set aside,” says provincial zoologist Bill Watkins. The nearby town of Churchill thrives on eco-tourism. Its population of 850 swells to over 1,000 during polar bear viewing season, about to kick off. Unfortunately that season is lengthening with global warming.
The West Hudson Bay polar bear population is but one of 13 sub-populations in Canada. But it’s under the most duress: at last count (2004), the number of bears had shrunk by 22 per cent to an estimated 935 bears. Longer waits for freeze-up = less food (ringed seals) = smaller bears with shorter lifespans and females producing fewer cubs.
Watkins points out that for every week a bear isn’t on sea ice consuming seal, it fails to gain 10 kilograms. This year winter was three weeks shorter – the shortest on record. The West Hudson polar bears were coming off the ice in spring an unprecedented 60 kilograms lighter.
Although bears typically fast 120 days a year, they are now enduring fasts of 165 days a year. They draw on body fat stores at the rate of 700 grams a day. The weak, young and old die. Only healthy fat bears without cubs can undertake swims up to 600 kilometers in search of food.
Andy Derocher of the University of Alberta drew a parallel with polar bears disappearing off Baltic Sea coasts 10,000 years ago. They didn’t have access to ringed seals, didn’t adapt to other food sources, become terrestrial or interbreed with grizzly bears.
Will this be the fate of the West Hudson polar bears?
WWF Canada communications specialist, Paulette Roberge, attended the inaugural Polar Bears International Communicators Leadership Workshop where participants explored the tundra, collaborated on blogs and brainstormed ways to spread the urgent message of climate change impacts on polar bear habitats. Read more blog posts from Paulette’s trip.