AWF story


"We need all hands on deck": interviewing Thea Bechshøft

On the tundra shore of Hudson Bay, near Churchill, a beautiful polar bear in the early morning sunrise.

Thea Bechshøft, Polar Bears International research advisor/facilitator, on Traditional Ecological Knowledge, the role of technology in conservation, Climate Change as the overarching threat to polar bears and more

The word arctic is derived from the Greek word arktos, bear, referring to the constellation of the Bear. Coincidentally or not, no animal epitomizes the Arctic as the Polar Bear: because of its symbolic value and its great ecological value — predation ripples down through the lowest trophic levels of the ecosystem. But as perfect totems for the Arctic, their catastrophic decline also reflects the challenges this unique region, "the Earth's air conditioner," faces.
I was fortunate enough to have been in this breathtaking place and have seen these exceptional animals wander free in their habitat. In June 2019, I went on a trip to the North Pole. The expedition was organized by Quark Expeditions and covered the area from Murmansk, in Russia, northbound through the Arctic Ocean to the North Pole, returning southbound through the Arctic Ocean, sailing by Franz Josef Land. Thea Bechshøft, a guest research advisor, was on this unforgettable journey, and her passion, fueled by knowledge, was contagious. I can think of no better person to talk to about this remarkable region and this magnificent creature.

Mariana Marques, Executive Director of Azimuth World Foundation

Photos by Polar Bears International.
Photo captions by Thea Bechshøft .

Thea Bechshøft in the field in Churchill, Manitoba.

What first led you to become involved in studying Polar Bears? And how did that lead to working directly with the species in the Arctic?

My fascination with animal skulls! I was studying Arctic biology at the University Center in Svalbard (UNIS), looking for an interesting project for my masters, when a good friend of mine thought to connect me with a professor at the University of Oslo. This professor had about 800 polar bear skulls in the Natural History Museum that needed looking at, and so I moved south and started my thesis in his lab. The polar bear masters in Norway led to a polar bear Ph.D. in Denmark, which again led to a polar bear postdoc in Canada — which was where I first started volunteering for Polar Bears International. Happily, after a few years of me getting to know PBI and PBI getting to know me, I joined as staff in December 2018.

PBI has a Field Research Project named "Traditional Ecological Knowledge." What do you think are the TEK principles from indigenous communities that can impact scientific understanding and management and conservation?

Polar bear researchers typically only have direct access to wild polar bears for a few months every year. In contrast, Inuit living in many areas of the North interact with and observe polar bears year-round and over multiple seasons — and usually over the course of multiple generations. The traditional ecological knowledge that is gathered by these Inuit holds the potential to point towards otherwise unexplored areas of interest for future polar bear conservation mitigation measures. TEK helps us understand the true complexity of Arctic ecology. However, to be fully able to integrate TEK and western science, the two approaches need to learn how to speak the same scientific language. From a western science point of view, this means, for example, that the locally accrued knowledge must be current and documented in a systematic way.

While it appreciates and understands the incredible value of TEK, PBI is also aware of the role that technology can play in aiding conservation efforts. What synergy is there between the two? Can you tell us a little about the most significant use of technology in polar bear conservation?

The Indigenous Knowledge Social Network (SIKU
), a mobile app and web platform, is a beautiful example of TEK supporting conservation efforts. Situated in Nunavut, Canada, SIKU is involved in several community-driven research projects — though none on polar bears yet. However, technology does play an ever more significant role in polar bear research; from advances in analytical laboratory instruments to the development of minimally invasive ways of monitoring polar bears in the wild. One example is the new adhesive satellite tag developed in a collaboration between Polar Bears International and 3M. Tracking polar bears provides essential information on the bears by allowing scientists to follow them year-round, including far out on the sea ice during the dark winter months. Being able to track the bears remotely helps us understand their movement patterns and their behavior - where they prefer to be, how they respond to changes in the sea ice, where they den, and for how long. Such information is critical to our understanding of polar bears and how best to protect them in a changing Arctic. Visitors to the Polar Bears International website can follow the movements of a select number of polar bears on the Polar Bear Tracker.

The early detection radar system, overlooking the shores of Hudson Bay.

School Strikes for Climate and Extinction Rebellion have shown younger generations' decisive role in raising awareness and fighting climate change. How important is young people's involvement in the protection of polar bears and their ecosystem right now?

The involvement of EVERYONE is important in the protection of polar bears and the sea ice they call home. We need all ages on board, all hands on deck.

The younger generations have been incredible at leveraging their voices and putting pressure on civic leaders around the world to finally start taking climate change seriously. We owe these young people a debt of gratitude, for, without their agency, I don't believe we would have seen much action on climate change, including the recent move from the EU, China, and others towards climate neutrality. However, as I said, we need all ages onboard for this — the most important actions we can take to curb climate change is to talk about it and to vote with the climate in mind, for civic leaders who understand the importance of moving from fossil fuels to renewable energy resources like wind and solar.

At AWF, we are particularly interested in PBI's projects regarding Humankind & Nature conflicts and the solutions you're coming up with to solve these problems. We often think of Polar Bears as creatures somewhat safe from direct human interference by virtue of their inaccessible habitat (it's probably safe to say we're all painfully aware of how much they're endangered because of indirect human impact). But this isn't quite so. Can you pinpoint these direct conflicts and talk a little about what PBI's doing to tackle them?

Sea ice loss has led to an increase in polar bear sightings in northern coastal communities around the Arctic. Although polar bears sometimes enter human settlements out of curiosity, the main reason they do so is hunger. Without a healthy sea ice platform to hunt seals from, polar bears will start looking for food in other places, often to their own detriment. Experts suggest human-polar bear encounters will increase as more polar bears are forced to spend longer periods of time onshore and as human activities in the Arctic increase, both in response to longer ice-free seasons. Polar Bears International is working proactively to reduce these conflicts and prevent deaths or injuries on both sides. These actions include
developing an early-detection radar system that could alert communities to an approaching polar bear, triggering an alert that would allow them to deter the bear in a non-lethal fashion.

In Tundra Buggy 1, PBI's roving broadcast studio. This pic is from the early days, when I first started volunteering (here, preparing for a live webcast with other panelists).

WWF Arctic recently published an estimate of the Arctic COVID-19 stimulus packages. Sweden was the only country whose package will have a positive environmental impact, investing in green job creation. Do you believe the countries that intervene in the Arctic are showing the right political priorities regarding the region?

I am no expert on COVID-19 stimulus packages. But if we take a step back and look at the bigger picture, we are now seeing an ever-growing number of countries setting goals for when to be carbon-neutral and taking the first steps to get there. This is incredible news — for polar bears, but also every other species around the world, including humans. 

In 2021, what would you say is the one major threat for polar bears and their ecosystem and the one breakthrough in conservation efforts to save the species?

Climate change is the overarching threat to polar bears – and to the Arctic ecosystem in general. For polar bears, the loss of sea ice is a loss of their preferred habitat and the hunting platform they need to catch seals. No sea ice = no polar bears. It really is that simple. To save sea ice, protect polar bears, and improve conditions for people around the world, we must actively reduce the risks —the best way to do this is by reducing our use of fossil fuels. When we burn fossil fuels like coal, oil, or natural gas for energy, we release more and more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The atmosphere is like a blanket surrounding the earth and normally helps keep our world at a stable, livable temperature. However, every time we add extra carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, it is like we are thickening this blanket, making it harder for heat to escape. This extra heat then becomes trapped under the blanket, warming up our world, and disrupting the climate. For polar bears, this disruption takes the form of habitat loss — the warmer the Arctic is, the less sea ice is formed. And again: no sea ice means no polar bears.
For these reasons, I would argue that the biggest breakthrough in recent conservation efforts is the fact that the US rejoined the Paris Accord and that other major carbon polluters such as China and the EU are setting deadlines for when to become climate neutral and how to work towards that goal. These actions signify a major shift in the political willingness to act on climate change.


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