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December 13, 2009

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Nature now predator

NOT long ago I strolled through Longyearbyen, in the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard. The place was bear crazy. Polar bear iconography appeared everywhere: on T-shirts, coffee mugs, sweaters and holiday ornaments. At the edge of town there was a sign that read, roughly translated, "Beyond Here There Be Bears." Tourists were warned not to wander past the sign unarmed, lest they be eaten by a bear.

Behind the bear-friendly facade, though, there was an unsettling paradox. If Longyearbyen's major import was polar bear trinkets, its major export was polar bear poison: coal. The mines of Svalbard supply about 4 million tons to Europe every year. The burning of coal, along with oil and gas, has led to global warming, which is melting the sea ice upon which the polar bear spends most of its life.

In Longyearbyen, the complexity of the human relationship to the polar bear is on stark display: we love its seeming cuddliness, admire and fear its monstrous strength and find ourselves incapable of breaking the carbon-fuel addiction that's threatening the bear's survival as a species.

Those contradictions lie at the heart of "On Thin Ice," Richard Ellis' timely, passionate and comprehensive survey of polar bear history, lore, biology and politics. Ellis is a prolific and graceful writer who's written some of the best natural history books of the past decade, including "No Turning Back" (a history of extinction), "Tuna" (all about the fish) and "The Empty Ocean" (sadly self-explanatory).

Ellis is a master amasser. "On Thin Ice," like a number of his books, includes excerpt-stuffed sections that ride the line between history and anthology. One gets the sense that he starts each new project by gathering everything ever written about, say, polar bears, stacking the volumes in great piles, and consuming them in marathon pipe-and-slippers sessions. If you seek moments of poetic observation a la Barry Lopez, Ellis is not your guy. But if you're looking for a complete digest of the history of human-polar bear relations, there's nobody better.

That history is, for the most part, a pretty shameful record of sight, shoot and repeat. "On ice, on land or in the water, early explorers seemed to regard it as their duty to kill polar bears," Ellis writes. The bears, for their part, were mostly going about their business or curiously sniffing out the explorers' ships. "A careful reading of the historical literature," the author notes, "reveals very few accounts where an enraged bear charged at a human being."

Toxic levels

For most of the 20th century the biggest threats to the polar bear were the high-powered rifle and the practice of taxidermy. Their fur is too coarse for the pelt market, and their meat isn't very tasty (eating polar bear liver, which contains toxic levels of vitamin A, can kill a person), so there wasn't much point in shooting a polar bear except in order to stuff it and display it. And of that, our forefathers did plenty.

Over-hunting was so severe in the 1960s that scientists feared the species was headed for extinction. One researcher estimated that in 1964 about 1,300 polar bears were killed out of an estimated worldwide population of 10,000.

Sanity prevailed. In 1976 the Arctic nations signed a treaty that banned all polar bear hunting except by indigenous peoples. The new threat to the ice bear, climate change, is so profound that it can make a person yearn for the days of simpler perils like sport hunting. Two facts are central to the polar bear's existence: it requires immense quantities of fat in its diet, and it obtains that fat by hunting and eating seals on Arctic ice. But global warming is thinning the ice and quickening the spring melt.


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