Knut is an adorable polar bear cub in a German zoo who has been making major waves lately.

Knut of the North

The videos of him are fun to watch! His adorable fuzziness, and attachment to his zookeeper, has certainly brought additional attention to the plight of polar bears. Here is the real deal concerning his brothers and sisters in the wild – not meant to be an alarmist cry, rather a primer on this amazing predator that is now in danger – and what this ultimately means for us.

A little on basics: Polar bears are found exclusively in the arctic in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Norway, and Russia. They are entirely dependent on sea-ice and sea-ice pack, as it creates a vital platform for hunting in areas where there is a high concentration of seals. Sea ice allows them to travel great distances. A single radio-collared bear in northern Alaska was found to travel over 200,000 square miles!

What threatens them: Prevailing winds and water currents are depositing PCBs and other toxins in sensitive arctic areas. Pollutants are stored in their fat quite easily and quickly accumulate. These interfere with reproduction, growth, development and immune function (just as in humans). Tourism, oil exploration in prime habitats, and CLIMATE CHANGE are the other threats to their survival. With climate change posing the largest threat.

Some stats*: A female bear will usually have two cubs at a time. The survival rates of cubs fell from .61 cubs between 1967-1989 to only .25 cubs per adult female between 1990-2006. There are an estimated 20,000 – 25,000 bears in the world (according to the World Conservation Union) distributed in 19 subpopulations. In the Beaufort Sea in N. Alaska populations have fallen 15 % in 5 years (1,800 down to 1,526). The ONLY populations of bears to be considered stable or increasing are on the islands of Canada’s Nunavut territory. In autumn 2004 observers witnessed four polar bears that drowned attempting to swim between the shore and distant pack ice. In spring 2006 adult female bears and one cub were found dead as their fat reserves were not large enough to last the winter (due to decreasing habitat).

Ok they’re cute and (were) the world’s most formidable predator – why else should I care? They offer clues about what is in store for us and have often been compared to “the canary in the coal mine.”

*stats taken from Defenders of Wildlife, Navigating the Arctic Meltdown.