Starving Polar Bear Photographer Explains Why She Couldn’t Help

Cristina Mittermeier describes the helplessness she felt while photographing the polar bear and implores readers to take climate change seriously.

By Cristina G Mittermeier
Published 20 Jan 2018, 12:08 GMT
On December 7, National Geographic published this video of a polar bear foraging for food in Baffin Island. The video received widespread attention, with many seeing it as a representation of melting sea ice and climate change. Cristina Mittermeier, co-founder of SeaLegacy and one of the National Geographic photographers present at the time photographer Paul Nicklen recorded the video, shared the story of that day. The following is a first-hand account from the photographer.
Heart-Wrenching Video: Starving Polar Bear on Iceless Land
This is what climate change looks like. This starving polar bear was spotted by National Geographic photographer, Paul Nicklen, while on an expedition in the Baffin Islands. As temperatures rise, and sea ice melts, polar bears lose access to the main staple of their diet—seals. Starving, and running out of energy, they are forced to wander into human settlements for any source of food. Feeding polar bears is illegal. Without finding another source of food, this bear probably only had a few more hours to live.

There is nothing worse for someone who loves wildlife and nature than to witness the suffering of an animal. That is why photographing the distress of this polar bear, and being unable to help it, was so hard.

Weak muscles, atrophied by extreme starvation, could barely hold him up. It was clear that, even if I had fed him the handful of nuts I had in my backpack, without sea ice from which to hunt, his prospects of survival would be slim.

As he staggered, clearly in pain, toward the abandoned fishing camp from which we were observing and found some trash to eat, I wished I had something more to feed him. He chewed on a piece of burnt foam from a snowmobile seat that he found in the trash bin, and I fought back the anger and sadness I felt watching this once-majestic animal reduced to foraging for trash.

Some have criticised us for not doing more to help the bear, but we were too far from any village to ask for help, and approaching a starving predator, especially when we didn't have a weapon, would have been madness.

In the end, I did the only thing I could: I used my camera to make sure we would be able to share this tragedy with the world.

Although I cannot say with certainty that this bear was starving because of climate change, I do know for sure that polar bears rely on a platform of sea ice from which to hunt. A fast-warming Arctic means that sea ice is disappearing for extended periods of time each year.

That means many bears get stranded on land, where they can’t pursue their prey, which consists of seals, walrus, and whales, so they slowly starve to death.

I know this image is disturbing and I know it is hard to watch, but we have reached a time in the history of our planet in which we simply can no longer afford to look away. We need to wake up to the imminence of climate change, and we need to speak loudly about the need to curb carbon emissions.

I am trying not to be hurt or saddened by the many negative comments generated by this story, and instead, I am focusing on the thousands of positive reactions we have been receiving. The answers to climate change are available and many can be found in the small and large choices we all make every day.



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