On Thin Ice: The Changing World of the Polar Bear.
2009, Knopf (New York).
Ellis, a writer, artist, and conservationist mainly known for his work on matters maritime, here turns his attention to Ursus maritimus. The polar bear is the largest modern land predator, albeit one that spends significant time in the water and depends on the marine food web.
The book is, not surprisingly, a very good one. It has Ellis' trademarks of thorough research (there is a typical Ellis bibliography, running 26 pages) and good writing. My favorite turn of phrase comes when, after reviewing how all sorts of polar bear parts are used for decoration and so on following legal hunts in Greenland, the author remarks, "In other words, nothing is wasted except the bear."
This book is a superb introduction to the polar bear, its world, and its interaction with humans. I had a pretty good idea from other reading how remarkable this animal and its adaptations are, but a lot of the bear-human history surprised me. For example, I had no idea anyone had, or could, train a polar bear team to pull a sled.
The most surprising thing for me, though, was how numerous the animals must have been centuries ago. Early European explorers didn't just see the occasional bear: they saw dozens, or, over a season, sometimes hundreds. I asked Richard if anyone knew the species' population before Europeans entered its realm. It may have approached twice today's estimate of around 22,000, but he cautioned there was no reliable number. All that's certain is that hunting and indiscriminate killing removed many thousands.
Ellis seems to have read every account by explorers, whalers, and everyone else who ever saw a polar bear. The bear's behavior is explored in depth, and some myths rejected. An excellent chapter explores why humans are so darn fascinated with the polar bear, along with the contradiction between our love for the adorable cubs vs. our willingness to kill adults even when they are not presenting a threat.
Then we get to the threatened status of the bear today. The species still numbers many thousands, and is not actually going to disappear anytime soon. However, there is no question that, as Ellis documents, climate change will affect polar bears more quickly and more severely than it will most species.
A side note is that, in an unaired portion of a 2008 interview I did for the series MonsterQuest, I hypothesized that declining ice to the north and more human development to the south would push brown bear and polar populations together, resulting in more "pizzly" hybrids. I tossed that off the top of my head at the time: I didn't realize that, as Ellis shows, more qualified people have advanced the same idea. A hybrid shot in 2006 is the first proven example of a cross occurring in the wild, but it likely won't be the last.
When Ellis discusses climate change, the reader gets the impression that it's a simple case of sometimes-hyperbolic but pure-hearted environmentalists vs. totally evil corporations and Republicans. I'm not about to defend the Bush environmental record, but there are debates about everything from the conflicting estimates of warming to the tradeoffs (never mentioned here) in outlawing oil and gas development in northern regions, and Ellis could have acknowledged that these subjects are complex even as he makes a persuasive case for action.
Essentially, then, the book has a zoology/history section and a policy section. The zoology/history section is wonderful. The policy section displays Ellis' passion for the bear in a manner that could have been given more context but is nevertheless gripping.
Summary: If the polar bear has an official biographer, it is Ellis. It's the same role Ellis played in his outstanding books about the great white shark and the giant squid. The result is a tome everyone with an interest in nature, bears, or the environment should read.