Churchill polar bear program gets a boost from Coca-Cola

The Town of Churchill has received an early Christmas present from Coca-Cola Canada, which announced Nov. 21 that it is donating $10,000 to Churchill's Polar Bear Alert program, which is designed to prevent the unnecessary killing of polar bears that wander into town.

"We are proud of our efforts to protect polar bears," Churchill Mayor Michael Spence said in a news release announcing Coca-Cola's donation. "However, more needs to be done to ensure their long-term survival. We need support like this to enable us to show other communities what can be done to prevent the unnecessary killing of polar bears. I hope more individuals and companies will support our efforts to save polar bears."

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Churchill, located about 550 kilometres northeast of Thompson on the shores of Hudson Bay, bills itself as the "Polar Bear Capital of the World" and a popular tourist destination for those who wish to see the bears in the wild.

The Polar Bear Alert program, operated by Manitoba Conservation, saves stray bears that come into town through a catch-and-release program that ensures wandering bears are relocated well away from inhabited areas. In many other northern communities, bears that come to close to where people live are simply shot.

"The Polar Bear Alert program is a made-in-Manitoba solution that is making a real difference in the north," said Conservation Minster Dave Chomiak in the release. "We're proud that out program helps ensure the safety of people and bears, and hope it can be adopted with the same kind of success in other places.

Coca-Cola's donation to the program follows the recently announced "Arctic Home" campaign, which will see the company donate $2 million to WWF over the next five years for polar bear conservation. The company will also match consumer donations up to a total of US$1 million made until March 15, 2012. Donations can be made via iCoke.ca. As part of the campaign, Coca-Cola is producing commemorative white polar bear cans. The company has been a partner of the WWF in Arctic conservation since 2007.

Funds raised by the "Arctic Home" campaign will go toward the WWF's "Last Ice Area" project - which seeks to develop a management plan for the area where summer Arctic sea ice is expected to last the longest it shrinks due to climate change. This management plan will try to ensure that habitat for polar bears and other species dependent on summer sea ice is conserved while also meeting the needs of Inuit people.

"We've used polar bears in our advertising for over 80 years," says David Moran, director of sustainability for Coca-Cola Canada, but the company became even more interested in the fate of their unofficial mascot after Moran and other employees visited Churchill during the Olympic torch relay leading up to the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. "We really learned about what was happening with the polar bear."

Moran says Coca-Cola is putting the full marketing power of the company behind the campaign to raise awareness of the threats facing polar bears, an awareness that Churchill's polar bear-based tourism helps awaken in visitors.

Moran said that watching polar bears on the shores of Hudson Bay waiting for the ice to form is an educational experience.

"They're waiting longer and longer each year," he said, "such a stark message about what's going on. You feel lucky and blessed just to go to Churchill. What Conservation Manitoba and the community of Churchill has done is a model for the rest of the North. It's needed now more than ever."

"The community of Churchill has created a practical solution to protect polar bears that is a model that can be shared across the North," said Nicola Kettlitz, president of Coca-Cola Ltd. "I encourage anyone who was the opportunity to visit Churchill so they can learn about their efforts to protect polar bears, reduce human-bear conflict and provide the world with a unique polar bear viewing opportunity."

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