LONDON - An accelerating melt of Arctic sea ice is likely to make the polar bear officially "endangered" in the very near future, the head of a global wildlife conservation network said on Wednesday.
"They're running out of ice to be on," said Julia Marton-Lefevre, the director general of the World Conservation Union (IUCN) which publishes an annual "Red List" of threatened species.
The IUCN, grouping 83 states and hundreds of conservation organizations, currently lists the polar bear as "vulnerable".
"It's likely to be increased to endangered... in the very near future, unfortunately," Marton-Lefevre told the Reuters Environment Summit of the giant Arctic carnivore that is an emblem of manmade global warming for conservationists.
The Arctic saw record melting of sea ice this summer, a 30-year satellite record shows, prompting some scientists to predict an ice-free North Pole by the summer of 2050 or sooner.
Placing the polar bear on the second highest alert, below critically endangered, would underscore how manmade climate change has arrived and could even bring political fallout.
President George W. Bush's administration will separately decide by year-end whether to add polar bears to its own threatened list, a move which would bar the government from jeopardizing their existence.
That could open a pandora's box given that the United States is one of the world's top two emitters of greenhouse gases blamed for global warming, alongside China.
Marton-Lefevre said the polar bear was a sign of a global "extinction crisis" which she said threatened, for example, half of all turtles and a quarter of mammals.
Extinctions could be the next global threat to hit the public eye, she said.
"All indications are exactly like the climate issue ten years ago. It looks bad. The climate issue was ignored for so long because scientists were very prudent."
Preserving animals and plants could help protect mankind, she said. "When the tsunami hit we now know the parts of coastline without mangroves were worst affected," she said of the Indian Ocean disaster of 2004.
The IUCN estimates that 16,000 species are threatened with extinction, not including those unknown or little understood.
Success stories are thin on the ground but include the Echo Parakeet, the only species that the IUCN this year downgraded, to endangered from critical, thanks to protection in a wooded corner of Mauritius.
"That's a good story... There aren't too many, this is the problem. This is a tiny little example to show that conservation can work."
The polar bear's main hunting trick is to use its snowy coats to blend in with a white background and so sneak up on seals, its main prey. In other words -- no ice, no food.
-- Additional reporting by Deborah Zabarenko in Washington
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