As the Olympic torch continues its journey through Canada’s north, some scientists are hoping it will shine an international light on the plight of the country’s iconic mammal — the polar bear.
Environmentalists warn the symbol of the North is in grave danger because of climate change, yet neither Canadians, nor anyone from the international community has proposed anything concrete to save them.
As the Olympic torch passes across the Arctic at the height of polar bear season, advocates are hoping people will shift their focus from the Games and think about what’s under threat from global warming.
“The Vancouver Olympics have a very strong northern aspect to them,” said Andrew Derocher, wildlife biologist at the University of Alberta.
“What we really need is to focus on addressing the issues that are facing places like Churchill and the North in general. The message has to be: ’We work together in the Olympics, we really have to be looking for these global solutions.”’
The torch passed through Churchill, Man,. — the polar bear capital of the world — and the northern-most inhabited settlement of Alert on Sunday. It made its way down through Nunavut on Monday and will continue into Quebec Tuesday.
Scientists like Derocher took advantage of the attention in Churchill over the weekend and made a presentation about the impact climate change has on the polar bear to a group of international corporate leaders and government officials visiting there.
Global warming is thawing sea ice, slowly destroying the crucial habitat and hunting ground of the polar bear, Derocher said.
Without the sea ice, polar bears lose weight, have fewer babies and clash with humans more often.
Killer whales and other predators move in, displacing the polar bear at the top of the food chain, Derocher added.
“The polar bears that everyone is in Churchill to see are clearly at risk,” he said. “We’ve got decades before this population will probably blink out. It’s not like we’ve got long periods of time to act.”
Although the Inuit say the threat to polar bears is exaggerated, international organizations are also pouncing on the Olympic torch relay as a chance to educate not only the world, but Canadians as well.
Robert Buchanan, president of Polar Bears International, said Canada is home to almost three-quarters of the world’s polar bears. Yet, he said, Canadians don’t seem to appreciate the threat to their iconic species.
“I don’t think they realize how they’re on the verge of losing their icon,” said Buchanan, pointing to the swift action the United States government took when it discovered the eagle was endangered.
“If Canada doesn’t care about polar bears, how can we impress upon other countries to care?”
The world is “killing polar bears from the comfort of our armchairs” and could be doing so much more to save them, he added.
Just turning down the heat in your home or planting a tree can go a long way to fighting greenhouse gasses, he said.
Still, some say the torch relay is not the time to debate the fate of the polar bear.
Gabriel Nirlungayuk, director of wildlife for Nunavut Tunngavik in Rankin Inlet, said his people have lived side-by-side with the bears for thousands of years. Although no one is denying the effects of climate change on the north, Nirlungayuk said the polar bear isn’t suffering.
There are twice the polar bears now than there were 40 years ago, he said. So many that they are now encroaching on the Inuit, he said.
“We’ve seen their ability to hunt whatever they find. We respect their ability to survive,” Nirlungayuk said.
“We’re fortunate to have Canada hosting the Olympics . . . I think people should just concentrate on the Olympics themselves. It’s a celebration.”
The only thing torch bearers should worry about is avoiding an encounter with a migrating polar bear along the relay route, he added.
“I hope the torch relay guys have good insurance against polar bears,” Nirlungayuk joked.
Monday morning, the torch relay moved from Alert to Resolute Bay where a temperature of -40 awaited torchbearers and made lighting the flame difficult at times.
The Inuktitut name for Resolute Bay is Qausuittuq, which means “the place with no dawn.” There was only three hours of light on this day.
The Olympic flame served as a beacon in the dark sky and drew hundreds of cheering supporters during a blessing ceremony and community celebration.
From Resolute Bay, the torch moved on to Iqaluit Monday evening where people again turned out by the hundreds to cheer the flame.