Wildlife biologists working with orphaned polar bear cubs near Churchill, Manitoba, took part in a study last fall to see if arranged adoptions might enable the cubs to remain in the wild.
"In the first attempt, the mother accepted the orphaned cub," says Pat Cronin, Natural Resource Officer for Manitoba Conservation, "which was encouraging."
Without a mother to care for them and protect them, orphaned polar bear cubs of the year (COYs) have almost no chance of surviving in the harsh conditions of the Arctic. Until now, they were placed in zoos or euthanized. But because biologists have observed occasional cases of natural adoptions with polar bears, the Born Free Foundation approached Manitoba Conservation to initiate a study to determine if adoptions could be made with orphaned cubs captured in the polar bear program at Churchill. "We thought it would be worth the effort," Cronin says.
As part of the study, conservation officers sought to match each orphaned COY with a healthy, lactating female caring for a single cub of a similar size. The Born Free Foundation donated funds for follow-up monitoring.
The first attempt took place on September 26, 2001, when officers transported an orphaned cub by helicopter to a location north of Churchill, along with a female and her single cub captured in the control area. The bears were sedated for the journey. After arriving at the location, officers painted each bear with a distinguishing mark easily seen from the air. Finally, they smeared Vick's Vapo-Rub on the bears' noses, as well as their bodies, to mask individual scents.
"Apparently, the cubs woke up first and started licking their mother," Cronin says. "Then when the mum woke up, she had two cubs."
The mother groomed both cubs and allowed them to nurse. Follow-up flights over the next few weeks confirmed that the female continued to accept the orphan, treating it as one of her own.
Although the first adoption was successful, four additional attempts failed, calling into question whether arranged adoptions could become the first alternative when orphaned cubs are found. Under present Manitoba guidelines, polar bear cubs may be donated to zoos only if:
- The cub is orphaned and less than 24 months of age
- An acceptable surrogate mother is not available
- The cub is evaluated by a licensed veterinarian and certified in good health
- The cub is permanently identified by a lip tattoo or other approved method
- The cub is accompanied by a Specimen Report and Health Certificate
Manitoba Conservation and Born Free Foundation representatives are evaluating whether the failures/successes were the result of technique or a random event.
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