An international plan is needed to rescue polar bears and their icy Arctic habitat but its success will hinge on a U.N. deal to fight global warming due to be agreed in December, Norway said on Tuesday.
"Climate change has overtaken hunting as the most significant threat to the polar bear," Norway's Environment and Development Minister Erik Solheim told a meeting of the five states rimming the Arctic where the white bears live.
"We must work to protect the ecosystem the bear is part of," Solheim said. "Global warming must be stopped if we are to succeed."
Solheim urged the three-day meeting the first time the range states have met since 1981 to agree on a joint action plan for saving the polar bear, including cooperation on research and management of the species.
The meeting in the Norwegian town of Tromsoe within the Arctic Circle is the first since 1981 to bring together the states that are home to polar bears Norway, Russia, Canada, the United States and Danish-administered Greenland.
The five agreed in 1973 to protect the bear and its habitat at a time when human hunters were its only known enemy. But the melting of the polar ice is now the biggest threat to the world's 20,000-25,000 polar bears, experts say.
Though they are excellent swimmers, the great white carnivores are not fast enough to catch seals, their main prey, in open water. Their survival depends on catching seals on ice, which is shrinking fast.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reclassified the polar bear as a vulnerable species on its Red List of Endangered Species in 2005.
Arctic sea ice shrank in 2007 to its smallest since satellite measurements began 30 years ago, raising the prospect that it could vanish in summers.
Though climate change is the main risk to the bear, Solheim said the species' habitat is also threatened with destruction through pollution, human disturbance and hunting.
He said rapid reduction of sea ice can also trigger other mechanisms, such as a release of methane from the Arctic tundra or accelerate the melting of glaciers on Greenland.
"This could have dramatic effects for people's living conditions all over the world," he said. "We must send a clear message to the climate meeting in Copenhagen that it must hurry to stop and reverse the rising of temperatures and melting of ice in the Arctic," Solheim said.
More than 190 governments will meet in Copenhagen in December to agree a new global accord to replace the Kyoto pact.