If ever there was an animal that solicited and generated strong emotions, thoughts and opinions, it’s the iconic polar bear. Arguably, the polar bear is the most recognizable animal on the planet. “Why exactly is that?” we may ask. Perhaps, and this is just a thought, it has something to do with its colour; the same way as human emotion is attached (and attracted to) white rabbits or white coat seals. That “cute” factor is prevalent and undeniable and more often than not accompanied with a resounding “aawwe!”
At the same time, it’s interesting to consider geographical emotion. The sentiments just described are more often than not held by people not living where polar bears do and not living in the Arctic, the only area of the world where polar bears are found. People living for the most part in southerly latitudes have a perceived relationship based on books, films and photographs.
That is not to say that people living in the Arctic and more northerly latitudes have any less emotion; it’s just, in some cases, a different kind of emotion. When it comes to the understanding and knowledge of a particular animal, it is (and should be) a cumulative affair and effort between the people who call the Arctic home and those who only visit.
One thing that is, or at least should be, unemotional is science. Once there is an emotional element introduced to science, the fear and possibility exists that it will be skewed and bent to serve another particular purpose other than to inform, educate and create awareness. True and believable science is brave and uncompromising, unyielding to fads or fashion and is unattached to organizations with vested interests.
Danish guide and lecturer Morten Jorgensen is not short of emotion when it comes to polar bears. In his new book Polar Bears – On The Edge, he forcibly argues that polar bears are quickly heading down the road to extinction. Whether or not that is actually the case, is not debated in this book, he believes passionately and emotionally that polar bears are in trouble. At no point, can the author be accused of sitting on the fence; throughout the book there is a dearth of ambiguity. He unapologetically shines a bright light on subjects not normally discussed in the mainstream media.
Jorgensen deals with the subjects of population, threats, protection and conservation. The one question about polar bears that gets asked perhaps more than any other is: “how many are there?” The one simple answer is: “we don’t know!” On that everyone agrees. The figure that is most commonly “used” is 25,000 but like many estimated numbers, a lot depends on whom you ask.
On the subject of threats, the author lays out the case against commercial hunting. It does come as a surprise to many, not only in Canada but the rest of the world, that polar bears are still hunted. In his book, Jorgensen says, “Polar bears are indeed facing extinction. But it is not because of global warming alone — it is because while global warming continues, we are allowing them to be shot”.
Global warming therefore is clearly identified as an added threat. The Arctic continues to change, so too does the (ice) environment on which the bears depend. As with many animal species on this planet, effective and real protection is vital if we are to see present populations safeguarded. On the subject of conservation, the author has the Inuit hunting polar bears firmly in his sights. It is in this regard that Jorgensen is most outspoken in the book. He appears fearless in his condemnation and judgement of modern Inuit hunting practices. This is, without doubt, one of the books most incredible features. He says, “The educated, the clean hearted and the sensitive Inuit must be questioning the intelligence of the mainstream Inuit tendency to take any given opportunity to maximize the exploitation of the surroundings”.
Jorgensen’s book will no doubt bring polar bears, once again, to the forefront of wildlife management and conservation discussions. With southern sensitivities and emotional attachment tending to overshadow any other point of view or opinion, a moment perhaps should be given to other animals facing a challenging and uncertain future. Every year it is estimated (conservatively) that over 100 million sharks are killed. A quarter of a million sharks are killed every single day! Whether unintentional or not, Polar Bears On The Edge could be seen and read as a book representing all threatened species of wildlife. It’s about the science and speaking honestly and openly about issues that have, for too long, languished in the shadows.
Without question Jorgensen has done his homework. This is not a subtle book; the point of view and the language used is both strong and uncompromising. It is clear and very evident that the author is aware of the political correctness that exists in debates, negotiations and conversations between all those with vested interests sitting around the polar bear table. It is the political correctness and those vested interests that help cloud and sway much to do with polar bears and their management. As early as page 10, Jorgensen confesses, “I am not a racist,” a comment clearly directed at Arctic peoples with whom he does regard as “my brethren”. He does not reserve his scorn just for many people in the Arctic but shares it with those in politics, government and within the numerous NGO’s that play a part in disseminating information about the past, present and future state of the polar bear. It is crystal clear that Jorgensen cares deeply for these animals and that fact has to be recognized, respected and admired.
One size does not fit all. It is difficult, if not impossible, to cast a net/judgement over the entire circumpolar world — an area covering approximately 15 million square kilometres. The same thing can be said about polar bears. Therein lies the challenge for any book dealing with and discussing the present and future of this iconic animal. This is an opinionated, passionate, emotional and forthright book. Without question, this book is essential reading for those interested in, not only polar bears, but also any of the world’s threatened species of wildlife.
Review by David Reid