The invasion of a remote Russian village by dozens of ravenous polar bears three years ago made headlines around the world, with images of groups of animals feasting on rubbish at an open dump.
Scientists and conservationists warned Wednesday that this is just one of a growing number of incidents showing the threat that food waste poses to the endangered animals.
Polar bears are under acute threat from climate change as the Arctic region is warming about three times faster than the global average, meaning there is less sea ice on which the animals rely for foraging.
“We are seeing this slow and steady increase in negative interactions between humans and polar bears, fueled in large part by the loss of sea ice, pushing more bears ashore for longer periods of time and in more locations,” said Geoff York, Senior Director of Conservation at Polar Bears International.
In the new analysis, the researchers looked at how discarded food, particularly in landfills, draws polar bears into human communities and into danger.
“We know from the world of brown and black bears in Europe and North America that garbage dumps are a huge problem for bears. Human food is a huge problem for bears,” said York, who co-authored the report in the conservation journal Oryx.
“It’ll probably get worse if it’s not addressed.”
– eat plastic –
Compiling a series of case studies from recent years, the report calls for greater awareness of the risks and better waste management in Arctic communities.
These include isolated instances of a bear or two approaching villages or camps — sometimes being shot after attacking locals — and much larger gatherings.
In Kaktovik, Alaska, the protected beach dump for bowhead whale remains, which the Inupiat community has traditionally hunted, attracts up to 90 polar bears from as far as 160 kilometers (hundred miles) each fall.
The dramatic scenes in the Russian village of Belushya Guba in 2019, when more than 50 bears were dragged into an open dump during a bad ice year, are an extreme example of what can happen when sites are left unsecured, the authors said.
Polar bears have evolved to eat a high-fat diet, so the weight they gain in the spring as they hunt ice seal pups will be enough for the rest of the year.
But as the ice melts earlier in this crucial time, bears now sometimes return to land without gaining enough weight, York said, and even those that return well-fed are staying on land longer, according to York.
In this case, an accessible landfill can represent a “calorie bonanza” despite being dramatically less nutritious than their regular diet.
“What they don’t know is that they’re also ingesting plastics, they’re ingesting toxic materials that are also in the landfill,” York said.
He added that there is also a risk of disease from litter like cat food, as well as being in close proximity to people and other animals in the dumps.
– uncertain future –
York said Arctic communities face high costs for disposing of household waste because the frozen and rocky ground offers limited landfill options.
Landfill or low-temperature firing are often used, but high-temperature firing might be a better, albeit imperfect, approach.
Meanwhile, some communities have formed patrols to chase bears from landfills before they taste human food.
Other ideas put forward by the authors include education on the subject and the use of non-lethal deterrents such as air horns and electric fences.
With climate change posing a significant threat to polar bears, is it worth worrying about the risks of food waste?
“I say yes because every bear is important, especially as we start to see declining populations,” he said.
“We have solutions. So let’s do what we can while we can and make sure they have the best possible ride as they head into this uncertain future.”
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