: On thin ice: the changing world of the polar bear (9780307270597) : Richard Ellis : Books
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On Thin Ice: The Changing World Of The Polar Bear

by Richard Ellis
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Product Details

  • Publisher: Knopf
  • Publishing date: 17/11/2009
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-13: 9780307270597
  • ISBN: 0307270599


A Q&A with Richard Ellis

Question: First things first: why polar bears?

Richard Ellis: Polar bears are probably the most charismatic mammals on earth. They are beautiful, powerful, popular, misunderstood--and seriously endangered. After all the other books I’ve written, this seems like the book I was born to write.

Question: You begin the book with your own intimate encounter with a polar bear at the North Pole in 1994. Can you describe what brought you there, and why this encounter was so remarkable?

Richard Ellis: As a lecturer on Arctic wildlife, I was leading a cruise to the North Pole for the American Museum of Natural History (New York). We were on a Russian icebreaker, north of Spitsbergen, when we spotted this bear right alongside the boat. I photographed it (from the deck of the ship) until I ran out of film. (That was 1994, back in the days of film cameras.) At that time, the North Pole was covered with ice, about 8 feet thick. Within a few years, however, the Arctic ice cap had begun to melt, and ships arriving at the Pole found only open water. For me, the bear and the thick ice (the Russian sailors chopped a hole in the ice and we went for a dip at the North Pole) clearly showed the Arctic as it was 15 years ago--and will never be the same again.

Question: In your opinion, what is the biggest misconception about polar bears?

Richard Ellis: People think of polar bears as man-eaters, always ready to attack (and eat) people they encounter on the ice. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, polar bears are intensely curious about anything that appears in their otherwise desolate landscape, and will approach and investigate sleds, tents, ships, people, dogs and anything else that looks unusual to them. Unfortunately for the bears, their curiosity is easily mistaken for aggression--if a bear pokes its head inside your tent, you might not want to wait to see what it had in mind--so bears have almost always been approached with a "shoot first, ask questions later" attitude. Yes, there have been polar bear attacks on people, but people attacks on bears probably outnumber them 1,000 to one.

Question: Unlike some other books on polar bears, you trace man’s history with the bear back to the 16th century. What were these early encounters like?

Richard Ellis: When the first explorers and whalers headed north, they encountered all sorts of unexpected animals, including bowhead whales (the object of the Greenland "fishery"), narwhals, belugas, and of course, the stately, white, ghostlike bears. People almost always shot the bears they saw, often because they felt threatened (see above), but also for target practice. A big beautiful animal standing on the ice was too good an opportunity to pass up.

Question: The polar bear has become a media star in recent years, both as the poster child for global warming and as cute cubs (like Knut) are born in zoos around the world. Their political significance has increased greatly and you compare this to the profile of whales during the 1980s. Has this increased attention been making a difference?

Richard Ellis: The polar bear has become a sort of double-barreled icon: On one hand, its cuteness has endowed with the kind of popularity in zoos, TV shows, and advertising that is unequalled by any other creature (except perhaps penguins, which are not nearly so cuddly); and on the other, the lone bear, traversing the endless icy wastelands in search of food or a mate has come to symbolize the precarious state of the Arctic itself. But too many people are more concerned with oil and gas prospecting in the Arctic, and they will not let the bears--no matter how cute or endangered--stand in their way.

Question: In your opinion, is the polar bear doomed, or are there still steps that we can take to save bears and their habitat?

Richard Ellis: The polar bear can be saved by reducing greenhouse gases to curtail global warming. Some scientists believe that we have already reached the tipping point, and even if we were to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to zero tomorrow--which seems somewhat unlikely--the Arctic ice would continue to melt at an increasingly accelerated rate. As it melts, more sunlight hits the water, which means more warmer water, which means more ice melting.

Because polar bears have evolved in a very specialized environment--the ice and waters of the Arctic--they cannot easily adapt to another way of life. Some polar bears have wandered south in search of food, and have found themselves so far from their natural food supply that they starved to death. Can’t we simply move them to the Antarctic where there is still plenty of ice and plenty of penguins to eat? In a word: NO. They would be as out of place on the Antarctic ice sheet as they would be in the rain forest. Antarctic seals some of which are almost as big and aggressive as polar bears do not den under the ice, and the bears could not possibly catch them in the water. If they were to feed on penguins, which they certainly could catch (and also feed on the eggs and chicks), they would quickly endanger the various penguin species, some of which are in trouble already. Finally, the seasons in the Southern Hemisphere are the reverse of those in the north, so transplanted bears would be completely turned around, with their denning and hunting seasons reversed.

(Photo © Rick Edwards, American Museum of Natural History)

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  • Facts on thin ice
    From Amazon

    If you have enjoyed the allegations that polar bears are endangered and want to believe, despite stable and/or increasing populations, then this book is for you. Its a master work of popular culture substituting for science. One becomes gradually more alarmed as minor mistakes mount; mistranslations from German, a fact-challenged recounting of the history of Theordore Roosevelt and the Teddy Bear, the statement that global temperatures have never risen so fast as now (check out the Medieval Warming period). The author then recounts the indescriminate killing of polar bears in early centuries, characteristic of how all wildlife was once treated, and then attempts to portray modern, regulated sport hunting in the same light. He praises the endangered species act listing while not mentioning that polar bear hunting provided much funding for polar bear conservation- that money went away with listing. He constantly refers to quotes from polar bear researchers in an attempt to garner credibility, yet ignores that many did not want to see the listing, or believe that the bears are actually endangered. Of course, global warming is addressed, but in the usual way. Dire predictions of things to come if "the warming trend" continues, without any critical thoughts about the current data quality supporting the envisioned trend. Ellis has not produced a valuable work on polar bears, he has merely cashed in on alarmist press.

  • Extraordinary history of an extraordinary animal
    From Amazon

    Matthew A. Bille, the first review of this great book here on Amazon, Amazon's editorial material, and "The New York Times" have all furnished an enormous amount of information about Ellis's study of the polar bear. Ellis himself seems to have read everything ever written about the animal and man's interaction with it. I have nothing of significance to add, except to praise the fair handed reviews of the book and Ellis for his informative contribution to my understanding of these fantastic animals. However, this sentence has stuck in my memory ever since I finished reading the book: "On ice, on land or in the water, early explorers seemed to regard it as their duty to kill polar bears. A careful reading of the historical literature reveals very few accounts where an enraged bear charged at a human being." If global warming continues at its present pace and if we humans are contributing to that warming, estimates are that we will have succeeded in killing off all polar bears by 2050. What a tragedy. The book itself is a triumph, necessary reading for anyone with the slightest interest in these magnificent creatures. Robert C. Ross 2009

  • A superb look at a fascinating creature
    From Amazon

    Ellis, a writer, artist, and conservationist mainly known for his work on matters maritime, here turns his attention to Ursus maritimus. The polar bear is the largest modern land predator, albeit one that spends significant time in the water and depends on the marine food web. The book is, not surprisingly, a very good one. It has Ellis' trademarks of thorough research (there is a typical Ellis bibliography, running 26 pages) and good writing. My favorite turn of phrase comes when, after reviewing how all sorts of polar bear parts are used for decoration and so on following legal hunts in Greenland, the author remarks, "In other words, nothing is wasted except the bear." This book is a superb introduction to the polar bear, its world, and its interaction with humans. I had a pretty good idea from other reading how remarkable this animal and its adaptations are, but a lot of the bear-human history surprised me. For example, I had no idea anyone had, or could, or would want to, train a polar bear team to pull a sled. The most surprising thing for me, though, was how numerous the animals must have been centuries ago. Early European explorers didn't just see the occasional bear: they saw dozens, or, over a season, sometimes hundreds. I asked Richard if anyone knew the species' population before Europeans entered its realm. It may have approached twice today's estimate of around 22,000, but he cautioned there was no reliable number. All that's certain is that hunting and indiscriminate killing removed many thousands. Ellis seems to have read every account by explorers, whalers, and everyone else who ever saw a polar bear. The bear's behavior is explored in depth, and some myths rejected. An excellent chapter explores why humans are so darn fascinated with the polar bear, along with the contradiction between our love for the adorable cubs vs. our historic willingness to kill adults even when there is no need to. Then we get to the threatened status of the bear today. The species still numbers many thousands, and is not actually going to disappear anytime soon. However, there is no question that, as Ellis documents, climate change will affect polar bears more quickly and more severely than it will most species. A side note is that, in an unaired portion of a 2008 interview I did for the series MonsterQuest, I hypothesized that declining ice to the north and more human development to the south would push brown bear and polar populations together, resulting in more "pizzly" hybrids. I tossed that off the top of my head at the time: I didn't realize that, as Ellis shows, more qualified people have advanced the same idea. A hybrid shot in 2006 is the first proven example of a cross occurring in the wild, but it likely won't be the last. When Ellis discusses climate change, the reader gets the impression that it's a simple case of sometimes-hyperbolic but pure-hearted environmentalists vs. totally evil corporations and Republicans. I'm not about to defend the Bush environmental record, but there are debates about everything from the conflicting estimates of warming to the tradeoffs (never mentioned here) in outlawing oil and gas development in northern regions, and Ellis could have acknowledged that these subjects are complex even as he makes a persuasive case for action. Summary: If the polar bear has an official biographer, it is Ellis. It's the same role Ellis played in his outstanding books about the great white shark and the giant squid. The result is a tome everyone with an interest in nature, bears, or the environment should read. - Matt Bille, author, Shadows of Existence: Discoveries and Speculations in Zoology (Hancock, 2006) ([...])

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