The new polar bear enclosure - FAQ
1. Why was a new polar bear enclosure needed?
The 1970's architecture of the old Polarium no longer met the expectations of today's zoo visitors and the outdated facilities were plain for all to see. What was once hailed as forward-thinking design no longer measured up to contemporary requirements - neither for the animals, nor for the visitors. Animal enclosures in modern zoos tend to pay more detail to the needs of the animals and are based on their natural habitat. A team of experts therefore spent considerable time trying to calculate how best to design the new enclosure so that it resembles the polar bears’ natural habitat, i.e. the Arctic.
2. Has the rest of the Polarium remained unchanged?
There are currently no plans to renovate the penguin enclosure. The sea lion enclosure will also remain as it is for the time being. The old birthing den will no longer be used by polar bears, but will now be reserved for seals, also giving them more space. In addition, a grandstand was erected in front of the California sea lions' pool. This allows all our visitors, big or small, to enjoy unhindered views of the flipper show. The tiered seating not only allows visitors to watch the sea lions at leisure, but also offers a relaxing place to sit before and after the show. The former toilet facilities were demolished to create more space for the polar bears. However, there are a sufficient number of toilets only a few meters away in the nearby restaurant.
3. Will the new enclosure help breed new cubs at Hellabrunn Zoo?
The planning of the new enclosure naturally took into consideration designing the ideal conditions in the event a female polar bear become pregnant. The new maternity den was modeled after natural birthing dens in the wild, in which the pregnant sow retires to give birth and where she remain completely undisturbed with her cubs until they emerge three or four months later. Our female polar bear Giovanna gave birth inside the new maternity den for the first time in December 2013 and spent the entire winter in the cozy interior with her newly born twins Nela and Nobby. The success of the design also enabled Hellabrunn Zoo to achieve a worldwide first: the recording of the first color video footage of the early development of polar bear cubs in the first few months.
4. Why are polar bear births so rare?
A female polar bear can have cubs up until the age of 20. The cubs must be nurtured by their mother for a relatively long period, on average up to three years. This means that a healthy female bear can only have a maximum of six offsprings in her lifetime. Cubs are usually born in pairs or as singles. Triplets are less common. However, in the harsh conditions of the Arctic only about half of all cubs survive to the age of five. Mating takes place between March and May. However, the fertilized egg does not begin to develop until August or September. The suspended state of the egg acts as a natural protection: if the mother fails to find enough food over the summer, the pregnancy will be automatically terminated. A healthy expectant sow will give birth in her maternity den between November and January and remain in a dormant state for the rest of the winter. The mama bear and her newly born cubs will first emerge from the den in March or April. While in the maternity den, the polar bears are highly sensitive to any form of disturbance. For a birth in a zoo, this means that the female polar bear needs a place of tranquility that is as close as possible to her natural habitat.
5. How many polar bears are left in the world?
According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species there are about 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears in the wild. Approximately 360 polar bears live in 150 zoos worldwide. The polar bear is classified as vulnerable on the Red List. Scientists believe that if the environmental conditions do not improve, the polar bear could become extinct within the next 100 years. In the last 45 years alone, the global population has been reduced by over 30%. The primary cause for the rapid decline is global warming, which has led to the sea ice melting, thus destroying the natural habitat of the polar bears. Unlike other bears, polar bears do not adapt well to living on land. Another debilitating factor is the polar bear's slow rate of reproduction.
6. What do polar bears all day?
Polar bears are most active during morning, with activity decreasing as the day progresses. They wander, play and swim for almost a third of the day. Only about 5% of their daily routine is spent hunting and eating. Two-thirds of day is spent sleeping, resting and lurking for prey on the ice. Since the polar bears at Hellabrunn Zoo do not have to catch their prey, it is important to keep them occupied. This is done by offering them their food in a variety of ways. In summer, they are given a special treat called an "eisbombe" - a frozen ice block with fish, fruits and vegetables. To prepare the eisbombe, the ingredients are simply placed in a large bucket of water and frozen. The polar bears must then figure out how to dig the food out of the ice. Other ways of keeping the bears stimulated in their abundant "leisure time" include regularly offering them new toys to play with. Furthermore, the new, larger enclosure not only offers the polar bears more room to swim, the tundra and taiga is also designed to meet their needs. Here, they can wander, play along the stream or dig and burrow in natural soil.
7. Are the polar bears not too warm in Munich?
The polar bear’s natural habitat is the Arctic, i.e. the region around the North Pole. They are found in coastal areas or on the sea ice. Polar bears are nomadic and travel in search of food in the tundra or taiga where temperatures can reach up to 18°C, particularly in summer. During warm periods, they may dig a burrow into the earth in which to stay cool. More important than the outside temperature in Munich is the facilities we offer, which allows the polar bears to cool down whenever it suits them. All they have to do is jump into the pool, which at Hellabrunn Zoo has a maximum temperature of 17°C in summer. On warm summer days, the water in our pool always remains pleasantly cool and fresh, thanks to the regular flow of groundwater supplied. The polar bears also have the option to cool off in a natural stream that runs through the tundra and taiga of the new enclosure, or burrow in the cool soil.
8. Why do our polar bears have a tundra and taiga landscape?
The polar bears' main source of food is seals. In winter, when the Arctic Ocean is frozen over, they sit motionless beside a seal's breathing hole and wait for their prey to surface. As soon as the seal comes up for air, the polar bear will reach into the hole with its forepaw and drag its next meal out onto the ice. Year after year, as the summer sea ice continues to shrink, the polar bears are finding it increasing difficult to hunt seals and are forced to go ashore. Stuck on land, they roam the tundra and taiga to forage for low-energy food, which is also scarce.