Should Polar Bears Be Kept in Captivity?

There are estimated to be around 22-31,000 polar bears left in the wild, with the majority of these located in Canada. We hear a lot about polar bear populations at risk due to climate change. But these populations' main risk originally stemmed from unsustainable hunting until 1973 when a regulation was put into place that significantly reduced commercial hunting.

In 2005, the polar bear’s status on the IUCN red list - which details how at risk of extinction a species is - was upgraded from least concern to vulnerable. There are approximately 19 known polar bear populations across their habitat range, and for some of these populations hunting is still a big risk. Globally, polar bear numbers are predicted to decline by 30% by 2050 and this is largely related to the predicted loss of ice that is expected as well.

Recently, the Highland Wildlife Park in Scotland has celebrated the birth of a polar bear cub. However, the birth didn't engender the high levels of celebration you might expect, and this is because the cub's survival is nowhere near guaranteed. In fact, only a day before this birth, a polar bear cub at the Berlin zoo passed away at just less than a month old. One of the Highland Wildlife Park's animal caretakers said that ‘cubs have a high mortality rate in the first weeks of life due to their undeveloped immune system and the mother’s exaggerated need for privacy, with any disturbance risking the cub being killed or abandoned.’

For me, this raises the question of the purpose of having polar bears in zoological collections. Surely, even if you take real precaution with minimizing disturbance around the polar bears' enclosures, you cannot eliminate disturbance in a zoo that is still open to visitors? It is even possible that a child screaming in the distance could cause enough disturbance that could put the cub's life at risk, and, after all, how valuable is the birth of one polar bear cub for conservation purposes? Sure, it will increase visitor numbers to the wildlife park and some of this increased income may hopefully be channeled into various conservation efforts but the problem for polar bears isn’t just a declining population; it’s the fact that their habitat is being irreversibly destroyed. These polar bear cubs born in captivity are never going to be released into the wild, and if they were they wouldn’t be able to contribute to the long-term sustainable survival of this species.   

The Born Free Foundation believe polar bears shouldn't be born into a life of captivity and that the only ones to be in the world's zoos should be bears that have been taken away from captive conditions abroad. They suggest that the more time that is wasted on captive breeding of polar bears, the less time and effort there is to be spent on tackling the real problem of climate change.