Looking for hope in dancing lights, innovation, and community-based conservation

Posted November 9, 2020 by Sarah Navarro
The Northern Lights (photo by Shervin Hess)

Seeing the Northern Lights is one of those bucket list-topping kinds of experiences.  Bearing witness to this phenomenon, a person can’t help but feel a sense of awe and responsibility to protect the wild and wonderful landscape that it dances above.  Last week, as we celebrated Polar Bear Week, we also reminisced about our time in the sub-Arctic of Churchill, Manitoba last fall, where we stood under the beauty of the Northern Lights. In light of what 2020 has brought us, we thought we would share some of the bright spots in polar bear conservation and news and how we can all be a part of a hope-filled future for polar bears.

As an Arctic Ambassador Center, the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden is not only helping polar bears through innovative research initiatives and providing gold-standard housing and husbandry to polar bears in our care, but we are also actively engaged in saving polar bear habitat through reductions in the amount of heat-trapping gas emissions within our organization and community. By reducing the amount of fossil fuels that we burn to power our lives and our daily Zoo operations, we also reduce the amount of carbon dioxide that is released into the atmosphere where it acts like a heat- trapping blanket, keeping heat from escaping and warming our climate. Responsible management of these resources allows us to safeguard polar bear habitat for future generations of polar bears, and humans, to enjoy. 

One of the bear holding units for bears who have wandered too close to town. Bears are temporarily housed here before relocation a safe distance away from town.

In addition to protecting polar bear habitat through our energy choices, researchers are learning more about polar bears, their behaviors and needs, and working with communities that live with polar bears to determine what solutions are most effective.  From high tech initiatives such as GPS tracking of bears to low tech bear-proof trash receptacles, bear alert hotlines, and bear holding units focused on early detection and non-lethal deterrents, people are working collectively in ways that are leading to coexistence strategies that work for both polar bears and humans!

Not all of the bright spots came from the frozen Arctic tundra. Polar bears in human care gave us five adorable new reasons for hope in the last year, cubs born worldwide at Ouwehands Zoo, Columbus Zoo, and The Erlebnis Zoo. Each polar bear birth is truly a reason to celebrate. In addition to being a tangible representation of the genetic future of their species, these cubs give visitors at their respective facilities a chance to get “close enough to care” about this charismatic megafauna, watching them grow from cute, fluffy cubs into powerful, adult ambassadors for their wild counterparts.

As we continue this seemingly long trek through 2020, we can choose to look for the rays of hope, shining like the Northern lights in a dark sky. We can also channel our inner polar bears who persevere with a little help from others, as they embark on their journey from land toward the hope of a frozen sea.