Featured Image Credit: National Geographic
By Kira Krall
Wildlife photographer and native Canadian Paul Nicklen is famous for his mind-blowing leopard seal encounter in Antarctica. His August interaction with the Arctic’s apex predator alongside Sea Legacy set a much different tone than the heartwarming meeting on the other side of the planet. Watch the tragedy in the video below.
A starving polar bear dragged itself across an ice-less land on extreme northern Canada’s Somerset Island. Its search through a trash can used by Inuit fishermen proved fishless. The loose skin draped over a bony frame and muscle-atrophied limbs were signs of a long battle with starvation.
Despite tears on the faces of nearly every group member, Sea Legacy couldn’t intervene per Canada’s wildlife laws. According to National Geographic, aiding the bear in any way would only prolong its suffering. Paul Nicklen fired back at critics by stating that he doesn’t make a habit of walking around “with a tranquilizer gun or 400 pounds of seal meat.” Instead, Sea Legacy did what they could to honor the bear. Paul Nicklen shared the video of its plight with his 4 million social media followers and eventually the world.
Nicklen, Sea Legacy, and other conservation groups are portraying this bear as a martyr in the long battle with climate change. Polar bears in southern populations rely on the late autumn pack ice attracting their favorite meal: seals. The season’s first cold snap ends the bear’s summer fasting. The feeding season starts gradually and ends with a bang in spring when the bears gorge themselves on seal pups to prepare for the barren summer. Ever-warmer autumns mean later formations of sea ice, extending the polar bear’s fasting period. Earlier summers also mean shorter seal pup seasons and less time for the bears to fatten up. And so the vicious cycle continues.
This study estimated that up to 24% of adult male polar bears would die of starvation after 180 days of little to no food. Bears in the southern populations often go without food for four months, making the six-month starvation mark even more feasible.
One glimmer of hope is the opportunistic nature of the polar bear. This study suggested that some polar bears may gradually transition to high-calorie land foods like caribou, geese, and eggs that can sustain their nutritional requirements. However, this survival-of-the-fittest scenario assumes that a significant portion of bears will make the switch. These southern bear populations will likely see dramatic decreases before the bears’ exchange surf for turf.