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Ten-year-old polar bear Eddy shakes off water as he enjoys a dip in a new pool at the Parc Aquarium in Quebec City. A new environment has been created to encourage Eddy and a female, Tiguak, to mate. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)
Ten-year-old polar bear Eddy shakes off water as he enjoys a dip in a new pool at the Parc Aquarium in Quebec City. A new environment has been created to encourage Eddy and a female, Tiguak, to mate. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

Nunavut's polar-bear hotline bucks conventional wisdom Add to ...

Polar bears have been wandering into hamlets and chasing children. People in the North have noticed their food caches plundered by the bold carnivores. And some say the thinning sea ice actually makes it easier for the big white seal hunters to catch their prey.

Polar-bear numbers, they say, are on the rise, not in decline.

Those sentiments, some perhaps counterintuitive to the commonly held belief that polar bears are casualties of global warming, have been captured by a new hotline set up in Nunavut to track the whereabouts and behaviour of the critter that has become the climate-change poster child.

"People from the South only hear one side of the story, which is from polar bear biologists or scientists who are using predictions, using computer simulations and we don't agree with that," said Paul Irngaut, a wildlife adviser with Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., who has fielded about 30 calls to the hotline in the past few weeks.

"That's not what we're seeing up there."

His powerful Iqaluit-based organization, which oversees deals made under the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement, launched the telephone line (1-877-975-4901) in response to an attempt by the United States to have the world ban all trade in polar bear products.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which is a worldwide agreement among governments that aims to protect wild plants and animals, meets in Doha, Qatar, in March to discuss the controversial proposal.

The United States, which considers the bears a threatened species, has already outlawed sport hunters from importing their prized trophies into the country. About two-thirds of the world's estimated 22,000 to 25,000 polar bears are located in Canada.

The bulk of Canada's polar bears are in Nunavut - and they're important to the territory's economy.

Canada is the only country that still allows sport hunting, which must be Inuit-guided, of the Arctic's iconic predator. Before the ban, some pegged the industry as valued at $3-million annually for Canada's North. The hunt pumps money into local communities in the form of fuel, supplies and guiding help.

Officials in Nunavut hope to give Inuit people the chance to share their concerns and compile a database of "traditional knowledge" about the carnivores and climate change - and, in the process, influence world opinion.

"We've got our work cut out for us," said Mr. Irngaut. "There's 175 countries, but we have to lobby. That's why we set up the hotline to get the data and back our argument."

But with Arctic temperatures rising and sea ice melting, animal-rights and anti-hunting activists have ramped up their efforts to kill the polar bear harvest for good.

Still, the U.S. proposal has no support from most polar bear scientists, but biologists do have concerns about the animal's long-term survival.

Biologists look to populations three generations down the road - or 45 to 50 years from now - and have concluded that the state of sea ice will be dire in many places and that proper management is needed to ensure the animal's survival.

"Longer term it's very clear that in the 45-year, 50-year framework that unless we do something about global warming, polar bears are going to have a very difficult time, but that doesn't mean hunters can't keep hunting them now," said Andrew Derocher, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Alberta, who has been studying the bears for 26 years.

In recent years, there have been reports of polar bears swimming far out at sea or drowning from lack of safe harbours on sea ice.

Disturbing photos of bears eating other bears or cubs being killed by older bears have emerged.

Canada designated the animal only as a species of special concern in 2008, which affords it no concrete protections. Some steps, however, are being taken on the bear's behalf.

Last year, Canada was among five Arctic countries that declared climate change as the "most important" threat facing polar bears. In the fall, federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice signed a deal with Greenland and Nunavut to protect the several hundred bears that move between Greenland and Canada in the Eastern Arctic.

In his Iqaluit office, the hotline rings as Mr. Irngaut explains that local people believe climate change will help, not hurt, polar bears.

"Inuit are saying they are the ones in danger, not the polar bear," he said.

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