Each spring in Wapusk National Park in Canada, polar bear cubs emerge from their dens to see the world for the first time.
At the start of winter, female polar bears dig dens where they give birth to their cubs – usually two, but sometimes as many as four. The cubs are tiny and completely defenceless, but buried deep in the snow the den is cosy and the cubs grow quickly, nourished by their mother’s rich milk. By March or April the female is lean and hungry, and the cubs are big enough to face the outside world, so they leave the den to hunt for seals on the sea ice. The cubs stay with their mother for 2 years as she teaches them to hunt and take care of themselves.
Imagine a world without polar bears? It seems unthinkable… yet as climate change gathers pace, the Arctic ice floes upon which the polar bear depends are beginning to break up. In the years ahead, this could be catastrophic for this truly charismatic bear which, when it stands up, is taller than the largest elephant.
The irony is that the polar bear represents one of conservation’s greatest successes: thanks to an international convention controlling the hunting of the species. The largest meat-eating land animal in the world continues to rule the freezing, ice-packed northern Arctic – but unless the world gets to grips with climate change and prevents the further disintegration of those ice packs, the polar bear’s future may be as bleak as an Arctic winter.
Photographs by Miguel Lasa