“We stood there crying — filming with tears rolling down our cheeks,” photographer Paul Nicklen told National Geographic about the devastating footage he shot of an emaciated polar bear searching for food on Canada’s Baffin Island.
Nicklen, who was traveling with the conservation group SeaLegacy last summer, posted the shocking video to social media on Dec. 5, along with a description of the gut-wrenching scene.
“My entire SeaLegacy team was pushing through their tears and emotions while documenting this dying polar bear,” writes Nicklen in the Facebook post. “It’s a soul-crushing scene that still haunts me, but I know we need to share both the beautiful and the heartbreaking if we are going to break down the walls of apathy. This is what starvation looks like. The muscles atrophy. No energy. It’s a slow, painful death. When scientists say polar bears will be extinct in the next 100 years, I think of the global population of 25,000 bears dying in this manner.”
Nicklen goes on to write, “There is no band aid solution. There was no saving this individual bear. People think that we can put platforms in the ocean or we can feed the odd starving bear. The simple truth is this — if the Earth continues to warm, we will lose bears and entire polar ecosystems. This large male bear was not old, and he certainly died within hours or days of this moment. But there are solutions. We must reduce our carbon footprint, eat the right food, stop cutting down our forests, and begin putting the Earth — our home — first.”
As the video continues, the bear is shown sifting through trash cans left behind by Inuit fishermen. It finds next to nothing and collapses onto the ground. Under normal circumstances, the animal would’ve filled up on seals (polar bears’ natural prey), but they too are vanishing along with the snow and ice on these far northern islands due to climate change. According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, the rising temperatures and melting ice are making food sources beyond scarce, thus taking a harsh toll on the species as a whole.
Meanwhile, a study by the U.S. Geological Survey reports that the dire climate situation has forced the bears to try to escape the global warming trend by trekking eastward on the remaining, but dwindling, ice. This has the domino effect of requiring the animals to eat even more seals in response to the extra energy they are exerting. But the overall result is diminishing returns in the worst sense.
“Short of action that effectively addresses the primary cause of diminishing sea ice, it is unlikely that polar bears will be recovered,” the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported back in January of this year.
Since posting the video of the polar bear, Nicklen has been asked why he did not intervene and feed the dying animal.
“Of course, that crossed my mind,” said Nicklen. “But it’s not like I walk around with a tranquilizer gun or 400 pounds of seal meat.”
Even if he had tried, Nicklen says it would’ve only prolonged the bear’s demise. And besides, it’s illegal to feed wild polar bears in Canada.
“When scientists say bears are going extinct, I want people to realize what it looks like. Bears are going to starve to death,” Nicklen told National Geographic. “This is what a starving bear looks like.”
The wildlife photographer hopes that the tragic image of this one polar bear will help alert and spread a wider message about the deadly consequences of climate change. Nicklen said his best hope is that this footage may change human behavior and policy so this animal will not have died in vain.