Dubbed the ‘Face of Climate Change,’ a starving polar bear photographed in Canada’s Arctic might have nothing to do with climate change
It is likely one of the most widely viewed images that is going to emerge from Canada all year: An emaciated polar bear digging through garbage that was quickly branded around the world as proof of the ecological horrors of climate change. Even Catherine McKenna, Canada’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change, wrote in a tweet: “THIS is what climate change looks like.”
But ask the people who actually spend their time around polar bears — Arctic biologists and the Inuit — and it quickly emerges that all is not what it seems.
The bear might have been injured or diseased
“The video shows what appears to be an old male in declining health, but clear clinical signs of starvation aren’t obvious (e.g. convulsions),” said longtime polar bear biologist Andrew Derocher in an email. In a series of tweets, Arctic wildlife biologist Jeff Higdon similarly speculated that the animal could be suffering from an aggressive form of bone cancer. “That bear is starving, but (in my opinion) it’s not starving because the ice suddenly disappeared and it could no longer hunt seals,” he wrote, noting that bears routinely survive long stretches of ice-free water during the summer. “It’s far more likely that it is starving due to health issues,” he added. However, noted University of Alberta polar bear researcher Ian Stirling disputed that it was an older bear, pointing out the lack of scarring around the animal’s neck. In an email, Stirling added that it’s impossible to know for sure what caused the bear’s emaciation, but it “is what a starving bear would look like, regardless of the cause.”
The bear lives in an area where populations are doing well
Climate change is definitely very bad for the future of polar bears. As Stirling said, “more instances of starvation will be inevitable” if polar bears don’t have ice to use as a hunting platform. But for the time being, disappearing ice is having varied effects on Canadian polar bears. Depending on where they live, some bears are getting utterly decimated, while others are thriving. Notably, the emaciated polar bear quite likely lives in an area where polar bears are doing rather well. According to data collected by the federal government, polar bears along the entire west coast of Baffin Island are “stable.” On the southeastern side of the island (around the Nunavut capital of Iqaluit) polar bears have even experienced a “likely increase.” It’s only on the island’s northeastern corner — in a management area that meets Greenland — that polar bears are suspected to be in decline.
Emaciated polar bears are not a new thing
A caribou or a moose is never allowed to get this skinny: Long before it gets close to starvation, a predator has usually turned them into a meal. But if a polar bear doesn’t drown or get shot, it’s most likely going to end up looking like the bear in the photo. “Polar bears, they don’t have natural enemies, so when they die, it’s of starvation,” Steven Amstrup, chief scientist at Polar Bears International, said in 2015. And, like many other bears, such as the grizzly, polar bears sometimes go through dramatic cycles of feast and famine. “Bears can respond to improved conditions: We’ve followed bears that went from bone racks to obese over a few months,” said Derocher. Niko Inuarak lives in Pond Inlet, NU and comes from a family of hunters and guides. He said his father Charlie was “not baffled to see a polar bear in that state” and had seen it often before. In fact, the elder Inuarak had once spotted “two polar bears together one very healthy and the other bear showing the same behaviour as in the video footage,” said Niko by email.
Activists captured these photos
These images aren’t the work of a scientist, an impartial documentarian or even a concerned bystander. They are part of a very calculated public relations exercise by SeaLegacy, an organization whose stated purpose is to capture photos that drive “powerful conservation wins.” The group dispatched five expeditions in 2017, all with the goal to “trigger public and policy support for sustainable ocean solutions.” Terry Audla is a past president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, an advocacy organization representing all Canadian Inuit. In a Sunday tweet, he called the photos a “stunt” that represented a “complete disservice to climate change science.” SeaLegacy’s social media posts about the bear also failed to mention that the images were taken in August, when ice cover naturally disappears from many polar bear habitats.