Strangely, different to practically all other animals, female bears do not seem able to distinguish their own cubs from any others. There are too many cases of cubs from other families being raised by another mother for it to be a coincidence. Scientists have been able to confirm this odd quirk of nature by DNA testing on bears they have examined. The most plausible explanation is that cubs had become mixed up when two families happen to meet and as there are relatively few polar bear families there is very little necessity to recognise instinctively one’s own cubs.
The collective noun for a group of bears is a ‘sloth’, which might be indicative of their apparent lack of concern about family relationships.
Canadian Arctic Map Photo Gallery
After two to three years the family breaks up and the cubs are on their own, in reality cubs no longer. They might stay in pairs for a short while but quickly become solitary hunters. A bear can often live for up to 30 years. Although well-adapted to the intense cold they do not have a natural, internal cooling system so will always seek cool areas rather than loll on the ice. Female bears are at greater risk due to natural hazards but the greatest danger to polar bears is man.
In 1976 the International Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears was established. This was designed to limit hunting by establishing hunting quotas. Russia and Norway stopped hunting altogether, the United States and Denmark only allow subsistence hunting, whereas Canada permits greater hunting opportunities and allow sports hunters to hunt (this really means shoot) bears under a settlement’s quota. The fee is very high and is usually divided amongst people in the community. A fortunate further restriction is that no use of motorised vehicles such as ski-doos is allowed. The hunt must use dog teams. If successful the hide may be kept by the hunter but fortunately the United States does not permit the import of hides.
There is another major factor which is diminishing the bear population. As the Arctic is warming up so the ice melts earlier and freezes again later. This leaves less time for the female to sit out their long pregnancy and have her cubs in the spring. There is now also the danger from more toxic material accumulating as pesticides and other chemicals evaporate from further south and then condense out in the cold Arctic air. This gets into the fish and bears eating them can overdose on mercury and industrial chemical substances. We all bear a responsibility to safeguard this wonderful and untameable creature.