Polar Bears are a sight to behold even from a distance -or even on video, for that matter- but to see them up close and personal is a rare treat, one provided by the Polar Bear Safari in northern Manitoba.
The company is called Churchill Wild and it operates polar bear walking tours out of the Seal River Heritage Lodge, located 60 km north of Churchill, Manitoba, and recently named one of National Geographic’s “Unique Lodges of the World.”
The safari is not for the faint of heart, at least according to an account provided by travel writer Jennifer Bain for the Toronto Star. Bain took a trip up north this past fall and was awestruck by a walking safari encounter with a very large breeding male nicknamed Bob (short for “Big Old Bear”), who got within a nervy 10 metres of Bain, her fellow walkers and two experienced guides. “Nothing can prepare you for this moment,” wrote Bain.
Built on the shores of Hudson’s Bay, the Seal River Lodge is located near an estuary where beluga whales can be spotted in the thousands over the summer months. National Geographic describe the Lodge as an experience both intimate and thrilling, noting that the Lodge, its unique approach to eco-tourism and parent company, Churchill Wild, “inspire a deep appreciation for the complexity and the richness of this northern wilderness,” writes National Geographic.
Bain, whose close encounter left her with more than a tinge of love for Canada’s North, calls the polar bear walking safari “Canada’s ultimate animal adventure.” “For me, there’s a patriotic pull to experience the Arctic tundra,” writes Bain, who notes that two-thirds of the remaining 25,000 polar bears in the world live in Canada.
Yet, in the fight against global warming, polar bears have become international icons for a changing planet. The World Wildlife Fund on calls the polar bear a “powerful symbol of the strength and endurance of the Arctic,” which nonetheless draws attention to the vulnerabilities of an Arctic ecosystem faced with a warming planet.
But not only do the world’s largest land predators have to deal with diminishing Arctic sea ice in a rapidly warming environment, they are also under stress due to toxic pollutants and chemical poisoning at levels 100 times above what’s considered safe for polar bears, so says a new study published in the journal Toxicology and Chemistry. Researchers from the University of Milano Bicocca in Italy looked at the prevalence of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) in the Arctic, reviewing 40 years of research on the topic to chart the impact of the chemicals on polar bears, seals and Arctic cod.
Industrial chemicals like PCBs and dioxins, agricultural insecticides like DDT and even fabric flame retardants in consumer products are all on the list of chemicals that make their way into the Arctic ecosystem, sometimes persisting in minute particle form for decades.
Concentration levels of POPs increases as they travel up the food chain – a process called biomagnification – and thus, for a species very much at the top of heap like the polar bear, the build up of POPs, from plankton to fish to seals and then to polar bears becomes intense.
“This work is the first attempt to quantify the overall risk of persistent organic pollutants (known as POPs) for the Arctic ecosystem,” said lead author Sara Villa, toxicologist at Milano Bicocca.
The study found that bear cubs feeding on contaminated milk are exposed to 1000 times the safe level of toxic POPs.