World's Saddest Polar Bear Dies After Spending 21 Years In Concrete Pit

He was just about to go to a sanctuary 💔

For 21 years, Tongki the polar bear spent his days inside a concrete pit.

In the summer months, the tropical heat was so intense that the arctic bear rarely moved. Every day, he was stared down at by noisy zoo visitors and had nowhere to escape their constant picture taking.

polar bear tongki death
Action for Animals

He was the only surviving polar bear in South Korea and was about to be transferred to a sanctuary — until he was found lifeless in his enclosure on Oct. 17.

It would have been just days until he went to a British wildlife park, where he would have enjoyed cool temperatures, snow and ice. But the 24-year-old bear couldn’t hold on any longer.


Tongki lived at Everland, a theme park in South Korea that contains a zoo, which was long-criticized by animal advocates for keeping the bear in unsuitable living conditions. Jiyoung Lee, of the group Action for Animals, strongly advocated for Tongki, and spoke with The Dodo in 2015 about his state at the time.

tongki polar bear
Tongki's pit-like enclosure | Action for Animals

Back then, Lee described Tongki’s exhibit as “small, barren and terrible,” noting that it lacked key features that would have increased his comfort, such as proper shelter, substrate to cover the concrete and a proper pool and cooling system. In the summer months there, temperatures easily surpass 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

In addition to local advocates, thousands of people online signed petitions urging the zoo to relocate Tongki to a sanctuary, or at the least, a zoo that could provide a more appropriate climate for him. In addition to being lethargic in the hottest months, Tongki also had algae growing on his fur from the extreme humidity.

tongki polar bear
Action for Animals

It’s no secret that life at a tropical zoo can be agonizing for polar bears. Much like the famously depressed polar bear Arturo, who lived at a zoo in Argentina until his death in 2016, Tongki often exhibited patterns of repetitive movements, known as stereotypic behavior, that stemmed from the stress of living at a zoo. He would regularly stand nearly motionless in his shallow pool, as throngs of tourists gawked and took photos of him.

“Korean summers are hot and humid, and they are true torture for Tongki,” advocates wrote in an online petition. “Polar bears do not have any physiological means of staying cool (such as sweat glands). Captive polar bears are often seen mimicking the same behaviour methods that dogs do in order to cool down, such as slobbering tongues and panting.”

Earlier this year, responding to concerns, the zoo, which is operated by South Korean brand Samsung, pleasantly surprised advocates when it announced it would be retiring Tongki to a sanctuary. But the call just came too late.

While Tongki can no longer be saved, you can honor his memory by avoiding zoos that keep polar bears in captivity, and donating to causes that help conserve wild habitats for them.

tongki polar bear

“We are crushed that Tongki did not make it to Yorkshire Wildlife Park, where he would have had much improved living conditions,” advocates wrote online. “Rest in peace, Tongki.”

To help protect polar bears in the wild, you can make a donation to Polar Bears International.