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Polar bears

Female polar bear
Scientific name: Ursus maritimus
Number remaining: 22,000-31,000
Extinction risk: Vulnerable
Habitat: the Arctic

About the polar bears

Polar bears are the biggest land-based carnivores in the world. Their Latin name, Ursus maritimus, means ‘sea bear’ – reflecting the fact that they are strong swimmers and spend most of their life around water. Their thick white coat and a layer of fat keep them warm and camouflaged in their harsh Arctic habitat.

Polar bears generally live and hunt alone, though they can be quite social. They mainly eat seals – which, by using their remarkable sense of smell - the bears can detect in the water beneath a metre of compacted snow, and from almost a kilometre away.

These impressive animals roam across vast areas – sometimes up to 600,000 sq km – to find food and mates. Adults are strong swimmers; they can swim for many hours to get from one piece of ice to another.

Climate change is currently the single greatest threat to polar bears. Their icy habitat – which they depend on to hunt and breed – is melting away. They are officially classed as ‘vulnerable’ by the IUCN.

Find out how you can help protect polar bears

Why polar bears matter

A curious polar bear gets up close to the Tundra Buggy and the people working inside.

In addition to the cultural significance that polar bears hold for Arctic people, and worldwide, they are the top predators in their food chain. This means they play a crucial role in maintaining the balance of the ecosystem.

By helping to protect the polar bear, we’re helping to make sure the Arctic food chain stays healthy – for the benefit of wildlife and people in and beyond the Arctic.

The Arctic’s fisheries provide millions of tonnes of fish for millions of people – including here in the UK.

Threats to polar bears

Climate change

Today, climate change is the most serious threat to polar bears. The Arctic is warming roughly twice as fast as the global average, causing the ice that polar bears depend on to melt away.

The sea ice is melting earlier and forming later each year. This makes it more difficult for females to get onto land in late autumn to den, and onto the sea ice in spring to feed. It means bears are fasting for longer – dramatically reducing their body weight and physical condition and making it harder for them to survive the summer season.

Loss of sea ice also threatens the polar bear’s main prey, seals, which depend on sea ice to raise their young and rest.

Find out more about how we're tackling climate change

A male and female Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) viewed from a helicopter. Svalbard, Norway. © Magnus Andersen / Norwegian Polar Institute / WWF-Canon

Human-wildlife conflict

In some regions, bears are spending more time on land. The inquisitive and sometimes hungry bears enter towns and villages out of curiosity or to find food – this conflict results in some bears, and people, being seriously injured or even killed.

An oil tanker, Prince William Sound, Alaska, United States.

Oil and gas exploration

Oil and gas exploration, shipping and increased development may all also affect the delicate balance of the Arctic ecosystem. For example, an oil spill could have devastating and long-lasting effects on the highly specialised marine ecosystem.

Polar bear, Spitsbergen, Norway Polar bear

How WWF is helping protect polar bears

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) on edge of an ice floe.

Preserving polar bear habitat

We’re helping to preserve the polar bear’s Arctic habitat, increase our knowledge of this animal and its home, and reduce conflict between people and polar bears.

We’re identifying critical habitats used by polar bears and other Arctic species – such as key resting, feeding and birthing areas – that may have some resilience to climate change. We have to make sure these important areas receive special protection or management now in order to safeguard the future for the people and wildlife that depend on the Arctic.

Ann Daniels and Pen Hadow take ice measurements

Working with governments, industries and individuals

We’re working with governments, industries and individuals to help cut global greenhouse gas emissions and encourage the switch to renewable energy – to minimise the warming that’s melting sea ice.

We work with communities all across the Arctic to try and avoid them coming into conflict with polar bears. For example, in northern Canada we’ve provided steel food storage containers so people can store their food outside without it attracting marauding polar bears. Keeping some distance between polar bears and people is safer for everyone.

Petrol tanker waiting for its cargo, Fujeirah port, United Arab Emirates, Indian Ocean

Preventing threats from oil and gas

We’re working on ways to prevent direct threats to polar bear habitat from industrial activities such as oil and gas developments, fishing and shipping.  

Researcher with polar bear

Supporting research

We support research that aims to further our knowledge and understanding about polar bear populations and how bears might respond to changes in their environment.

Polar bear, Spitsbergen, Norway

Success story: commitment to protect polar bears

In December 2013, ministers and other national representatives from the five countries where polar bears are found - Canada, Norway, Denmark (Greenland), Russia and the United States - made commitments to help protect polar bears across their Arctic range. The declaration was made at the International Forum on Polar Bear Conservation in Russia – a forum that was supported by WWF.

The declaration included commitments by the Arctic states to work on managing the polar bears’ home in ways that will take into account the Arctic’s shrinking ice and the increasing interest in Arctic development.

These outcomes have built on forty years of polar bear conservation.

We’ll now be watching to make sure these commitments are backed by action – in an effort to guarantee a future for these magnificent bears.

How you can help protect polar bears