As the sea ice retreats, polar bears face a challenging future unless we take action on climate change.

© Paul Nicklen/SeaLegacy

12/9/2017 9:29:13 PM

Starving Polar Bear Draws Attention to Climate Change

A video of an emaciated polar bear filmed last August near Baffin Island, Nunavut by Paul Nicklen of SeaLegacy has gone viral across social media, putting a face to the challenges polar bears face in a warming Arctic.

“It’s a very sad video—one that’s hard to watch for anyone who cares about wildlife,” said Geoff York, senior director of conservation at Polar Bears International. “In the footage, the bear clearly appears to be on its last legs. It’s in extremely poor body condition and visibly appears to be starving.”

The future for polar bears

Research shows that sea ice retreat, and the reduced hunting opportunities polar bears experience with less ice, already has led to reduced body condition and survival in some polar bear subpopulations.  

“When biologists talk about reduced survival, what they are really saying is that more polar bears are starving to death,” said Dr. Steven Amstrup, PBI’s chief scientist. “And this is what starvation looks like.

At the same time,” he added, “we cannot say, from the footage captured here, that this bear’s malnutrition was caused by global warming and its associated sea ice loss. Polar bears have few natural predators. Although they normally live a long time, they are not immortal. All eventually die and most do so because they have not been able to capture enough food. This means that malnutrition is a major cause of death for polar bears. 

"Young bears that have not learned well enough how to catch seals, old feeble bears, and bears that have injured themselves, all can succumb to malnutrition under some circumstances. The starvation leading to the event shown in this video could be related to old age, injury (like a broken jaw or teeth that prevent it from catching food), disease, or other factors limiting its success in obtaining prey.

"The problem is that an ever-warmer future means polar bears will have less and less access to their seal prey, so the rate at which bears die from malnutrition/starvation will increase. So, regardless of the proximate cause of this bear’s condition, this heart-wrenching footage provides us with a warning about the future."

Decades of scientific study confirm that polar bears can only effectively catch their seal prey from the sea ice, and that foods nutritious enough to substitute for those seals are largely not available on land.  

“Therefore, despite uncertainties about how this bear got into this starving condition, we can be absolutely certain if we allow the world to continue to warm, there will be ever greater numbers of such events as survival rates decline over more and more of the polar bear range,” Amstrup said. “And we can be certain that, without halting greenhouse gas rise, the world’s polar bears gradually will disappear.” 

But, he emphasized, it’s not too late to turn this around. 

“Humans have caused this problem and humans can fix this problem,” he said, “and we urge anyone wanting to help polar bears to join us in this effort.”

Share this

Stay in the Loop

Sign up to receive polar bear news and updates.

Sign Up!

Thank you for the support!