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Review: ‘Icons on Ice: Innovations in Polar Bear Conservation’ – Rod Downie

ByElla Mercer

Dec 15, 2018
Image credit: skeeze via Pixabay

Rod Downie is WWF’s Chief Advisor, Polar Regions. He delivered a special guest talk as part of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society’s (RSGS) national talks programme, ‘Inspiring People’. With over 90 lectures across mainland Scotland in 2018-2019, the series hosts a range of professionals, from explorers to scientists to photographers, to tell their stories and provide “inspirational insights into people, places and planet” (via RSGS). Find out more information here: https://rsgs.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Tiso-2018-19-Leaflet.pdf.

“It’s April 6 2016. It’s -37°C. I’ve just been dropped off with Mike, a lab technician, on the sea ice in Canada having flown in from Resolute Bay. 100 metres away, stands a large, male polar bear. He weighs seven times my body weight, on a good day, and has 42 razor-sharp teeth. He can cover these 100 metres faster than Usain Bolt…”

The audience was gripped, and a buzz of anticipation filled the room.

“…but, the thing running through my mind at this point is how lucky I am to work for WWF.”

A sigh of relief. Both Rod and Mike were left unscathed by this heart-stopping encounter. For most, it’s something we might see on the television, with Sir David Attenborough smoothly commentating on the instinctual behaviours of both bear and man. For a few, it might be a once in a lifetime experience on a bucket list trip to the Arctic. But for Rod and his colleagues, this is everyday life.

The polar regions (the Arctic and Antarctica) are already experiencing environmental changes due to climate change and this is only predicted to get worse in years to come. However, so little is known about the different species inhabiting these parts of the world that it’s almost impossible to predict how they might respond to a climate-altered future.

Downie began his talk highlighting some of the most fundamental, unanswered questions in polar bear research surrounding population numbers and distribution. It was astonishing to hear that the population is currently estimated between 22,000 to 31,000, with Downie emphasising the enormous range of uncertainty. The WWF supports several innovative Arctic projects aimed at providing a more accurate population estimate. Downie spent a large portion of his talk breaking down four different technologies that are currently being used or trialled to count polar bears. These include ‘Genetic Mark-Recapture, which involves obtaining a unique genetic fingerprint for each polar bear from a 5mm dart biopsy and Footprints in the Snow’, a collaborative project between WWF and SPYGEN that allows scientists to isolate polar bear DNA from just two scoops of snow.  

Accurate demographic information is crucial to understanding and assessing the threats facing polar bears. The decline of sea ice, due to climate change, not only impacts the bears’ ability to hunt but has also driven them inland, bringing them into close contact with human communities. Downie sympathetically told of the two Inuit’s killed this year as a result of human-polar bear conflict before detailing the initiatives WWF is supporting to provide non-offensive polar bear deterrents, such as firecrackers, in attempts to dramatically reduce this interaction.

Aside from his fieldwork, Downie invests a lot of time into programme and policy management. He described himself as “optimistic about the future of polar bears in the world” due to flagship projects such as the ‘Last Ice Area’ and the ‘Polar Bear Circumpolar Action Plan’ and insisted that “we can still plan for change.” However, uncoordinated global efforts leave many, including me, more pessimistic about the fate of polar bears and Arctic biodiversity.

Rod’s passion for his work shone through in his short 45-minute talk. Captivating the room, he brought home some of the hard truths surrounding polar bear conservation and the important work that WWF is doing to understand and protect these animals.


Image credit: skeeze via Pixabay

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