Are Polar Bears Endangered and How Many Are Left In the World?

Written by Deniz Martinez
Updated: December 20, 2023
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The polar bear (Ursus maritimus) is both the largest and most aquatic of the world’s eight living bear species. Unfortunately, six of these eight species currently face an extinction threat, and the polar bear is one of them. Find out how many polar bears we think live in the world, along with current conservation statuses and top threats to survival.

Global Polar Bear Population

Map of polar bear subpopulations and ecoregions. The polar basin Divergent Ice Ecoregion (purple) includes: Southern Beaufort Sea (SBS), Chukchi Sea (CS), Laptev Sea (LVS), Kara Sea (KS), and the Barents Sea (BS). The polar basin Convergent Ice Ecoregion (blue) includes: East Greenland (EG), Queen Elizabeth (QE), Northern Beaufort Sea (NBS). The Seasonal Ice Ecoregion (Green) includes: Southern Hudson Bay (SHB), Western Hudson Bay (WHB), Foxe Basin (FB), Davis Strait (DS), and Baffin Bay (BB). The Archipelago Ecoregion (yellow) includes: Gulf of Boothia (GB), M’Clintock Channel (MC), Lancaster Sound (LS, orange), Viscount-Melville Sound (VM), Norwegian Bay (NW), and Kane Basin (KB).

Polar bears are found in 19 subpopulations across the four polar ecoregions, including parts of Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Norway (Svalbard), Russia, and the United States (Alaska).

©USGS / CC0 via Wikimedia Commons – License

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According to the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group‘s most recent report in 2021, the global wild polar bear population is estimated to be 26,000 (range 22,000 to 31,000). This population is divided into 19 distinct subpopulations across its circumpolar distribution.

In addition to this wild population, there are also about 300 polar bears in captivity around the world.

Global Conservation Status

polar bears in arctic water

Because of their dependence on sea ice and marine ecosystems, polar bears are classified as marine mammals.

©iStock.com/avstraliavasin

The IUCN Red List currently lists the polar bear as Vulnerable on its extinction scale. This threatened status is just one level below Endangered. A Vulnerable status denotes that a species faces a high risk of extinction in the wild without intervention.

Conservation Status By Country

Heaviest Animals: Polar Bear

Polar bear mothers can have anywhere from 1 to 4 cubs in a single litter.

©Alexey Seafarer/Shutterstock.com

In addition to the global conservation listing, each of the five nations with polar bear populations signed a multilateral treaty in 1973 known as The Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears, which limits hunting and trade in polar bears and coordinates research and conservation efforts. The species also appears on national or regional conservation lists in each country as follows:

Canada: Special Concern (COSEWIC)

Denmark (Greenland): Vulnerable (IUCN European Red List)

Norway (Svalbard): Vulnerable (IUCN European Red List)

Russia: 3 subpopulations, listed as Category 3 (Rare), Category 4 (Indeterminate), and Category 5 (Recovering) (Red Data Book)

United States (Alaska): Threatened (Endangered Species Act)

Threats to Polar Bears

The polar bear’s life cycle depends on sea ice.

©Ansgar Walk / Creative Commons

As reported by the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group, the loss of Arctic sea ice due to climate change poses the single biggest threat to polar bear populations worldwide. Because polar bears need sea ice for hunting, breeding, and traveling, its continued loss threatens the entire species with extinction in the wild.

In addition to this top threat of sea ice loss, polar bears face several other challenges. Other top conservation concerns include increased commercial activity (oil and gas development, mining, shipping, etc.); human conflicts; pollution; disease; inadequate habitat protection of denning sites; and overharvesting.

Conclusion

The global polar bear population is currently estimated to be about 26,000 in the wild and 300 in captivity. Polar bears are threatened species at both the global and national levels. The top threat contributing to their continued decline is the loss of sea ice due to climate change.

Video from Polar Bears International: “Polar Bears and Arctic Sea Ice”

The photo featured at the top of this post is © GTW/Shutterstock.com


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About the Author

Deniz Martinez is a writer at A-Z Animals where her primary focus is on biogeography, ornithology, and mammalogy. Deniz has been researching, teaching, and writing about animals for over 10 years and holds both an MS degree from American Public University earned in 2016 and an MA degree from Lindenwood University earned in 2022. A resident of Pennsylvania, Deniz also runs Art History Animalia, a website and associated social media dedicated to investigating intersections of natural history with art & visual culture history via exploring animal iconography.

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