Polar bears—fierce and majestic—have captivated us for centuries. Feared by explorers, revered by the Inuit, and beloved by zoo goers everywhere, polar bears are a symbol for the harsh beauty and muscular grace of the Arctic. Today, as global warming threatens the ice caps’ integrity, the polar bear has also come to symbolize the peril that faces all life on earth as a result of harmful human practices. Here, the acclaimed science writer Richard Ellis offers an impassioned and moving statement on behalf of polar bears—and all they stand for.
Ellis gives a vivid and brilliantly articulated picture of earth’s largest land predators—including their hunting, mating, and hibernation habits. Polar bears are exceptionally well suited for hunting—especially when it comes to ringed seals, their favorite prey, which they can smell from more than a mile away. But as the ice melts in the Arctic, the ability of polar bears to find food diminishes in spite of their incredible physical capacities. Some bears will vainly take to the water in search of ice on which to hunt, and many of them swim until they drown. In the past twenty years alone, the world population of polar bears has shrunk by half. Today they number just 22,000.
Still, On Thin Ice is an ode, not an elegy: Ellis reminds us that the extinction of the polar bear—and the disappearance of our ice caps—is not inevitable. While the killing of polar bears remains a matter of ritual solemnity among the Inuit, U.S. government officials continue to balk at placing the polar bear on the endangered species list because doing so would place the bears’ territory off-limits for oil drilling. As the polar bears’ habitat disappears beneath them, their survival rests entirely on our willingness to take such critical steps.
Urgent and stirring, On Thin Ice is both a celebration and a rallying cry on behalf of one of earth’s greatest natural treasures.
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Richard Ellis is the author of more than a dozen books. He is also a celebrated marine artist whose paintings have been exhibited in museums and galleries around the world. He has written and illustrated articles for numerous magazines, including Audobon, National Geographic, Smithsonian, and Scientific American. He lives in New York City.
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From our interview with Richard Ellis
Q: First things first, why polar bears?
A: Polar bears are probably the most charismatic mammals on earth. They are beautiful, powerful, popular, misunderstood–and seriously endangered. After all the other books I’ve written, this seems like the book I was born to write.
Q: You begin the book with your own intimate encounter with a polar bear at the North Pole in 1994. Can you describe what brought you there, and why this encounter was so remarkable?
A: As a lecturer on Arctic wildlife, I was leading a cruise to the North Pole for the American Museum of Natural History (New York). We were on a Russian icebreaker, north of Spitsbergen, when we spotted this bear right alongside the boat. I photographed it (from the deck of the ship) until I ran out of film. (That was 1994, back in the days of film cameras.) At that time, the North Pole was covered with ice, about 8 feet thick. Within a few years, however, the Arctic ice cap had begun to melt, and ships arriving at the Pole found only open water. For me, the bear and the thick ice (the Russian sailors chopped a hole in the ice and we went for a dip at the North Pole) clearly showed the Arctic as it was 15 years ago–and will never be the same again.
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