Can we save polar bears by moving them to Antarctica?
"Although it sounds like an easy solution, the risks of relocation far outweigh the benefits."
Q. I am writing concerning the plight of polar bears due to sea-ice loss in the Arctic. It occurs to me that one possible solution is simply to move a sufficient number of polar bears to a promising spot on the Antarctic ice pack where the species might get a fresh start. Some areas seem to support large seal populations. I can imagine there would problems in transporting them, but I have never seen consideration of this simple approach.
A. This question comes up from time to time. While intuitively the concept may seem to have merit, a closer examination indicates that it is not a simple solution and includes a great deal of risk. In general, translocating or introducing polar bears into Antarctica would be extremely unwise for a number of reasons, some of which follow.
Such an introduction runs counter to the well accepted principles of natural biodiversity management. Sadly, history is replete with examples of species introductions resulting in significant harm to native species and disrupting entire ecosystems, including: rabbits, the mongoose to Hawaii, the brown tree snake to Guam, foxes to the Aleutian Islands, and various invasive plant and aquatic species. A number of web sites include more detailed information, including The National Wildlife Federation and the Global Invasive Species Programme (GISP) of the IUCN.
GISP has the following summary of potential impacts: "Invasive non-native species can harm individual native species or even entire ecosystems, and thus also impact those who depend on natural systems for important resources and products. Unlike other kinds of pollution, these 'biological pollutants' can actually increase in abundance over time and force out native species – by competing with them (for space, water, or food), by eating the native species, spreading new diseases, or so altering the habitat that the native species can no longer survive. In fact, the impacts of non-native species are now recognized as second only to habitat alteration as a factor in the decline and extinction of our American flora and fauna."
- Native wildlife species who reside in or seasonally use Antarctica are generally naïve to surface predators, including resident seals and penguins.
- In general, polar bear predation could result in unanticipated and catastrophic consequences to prey species, particularly naive prey species.
- Penguins would be easy prey for polar bears. Predation of penguins, especially on their breeding grounds, could rapidly devastate their populations.
- Potential disease pathogens could be either introduced from the Arctic by the bears or be present in Antarctica and threaten the bears. Wildlife in both regions are considered to have naïve immune systems as they have been historically isolated from sources/vectors due to their remote locations and the extreme environmental conditions that persist in winter months.
- Although terrestrial and sea ice declines have lagged behind the Arctic, the Antarctic is quickly catching up. From 1979 to 1990, Antarctica was losing ice at a rate of around 40 billion tons per year. However, a recent analysis (Rignot et al., 2019) found that from 2009 to 2018, that ice loss increased to 252 billion tons per year—six times higher than the former rate. In the long run, Antarctic species will be facing similar habitat loss issues as Arctic species.
- Relocation would also violate a number of national and international laws or treaties. Many countries go to great lengths to restrict the import or introduction of exotics into sensitive ecosystems. Because of the relatively simple nature of the Antarctic ecosystem, it’s easy to imagine this being thrown out of balance with the introduction of new top predator.
- While well intentioned, such solutions avoid addressing the primary threat to both the Arctic and Antarctic ecosystems: climate change. We need to all turn our creativity and our passion towards the rapid reduction of burning fossil fuels for energy while transitioning to clean, renewable sources.