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The Truth About That Dying Polar Bear
Susan Crockford, Polar Bear Science, 9 December 2017
We finally have this year’s example of the new fad of claiming every polar bear that died of starvation (or on its way to starving to death) — and caught on film — is a victim of climate change: a young bear on Somerset Island near Baffin Island, Nunavut filmed in August during its last angonizing hours by members of an activist conservation organization called SeaLegacy.
“‘I filmed with tears rolling down my cheeks’: Heart-breaking footage shows a starving polar bear on its deathbed struggling to walk on iceless land.” [actual title of article in the DailyMail Online, 8 December 2017]. CBC Radio (8 December 2017) jumped on it as well, as have others. National Geographic ran a similar story, like others, that compliantly emphasized the future man-made global warming threat the photographers were touting.
This is no different from Ian Stirling’s “bear that died of climate change”back in 2013, or several others since then: here, here, and here (one of these incidents also involved the same photographer as this incident, Paul Nicklen). I’ve called this practice of filming dead or dying bears and splashing the photos across the pages of newspapers and the internet “tragedy porn” — a kind of voyerism that leaves people open to emotional manipulation. The internet laps it up.
UPDATE 9 December 2017: a quote from another source shows photographer Paul Nicklen’s “expertise” in polar bear biology, see below.
Here is the co-founder of SeaLegacy (CBC Radio) saying why they filmed the incident and released the video (my bold):
“Conservation group SeaLegacy has released video of an emaciated polar bear near the Baffin Islands. They say climate change has led the animal to starvation.(SeaLegacy/Caters News)
“We hear from scientists that in the next 100 to 150 years, we’re going to lose polar bears,” Mittermeier [SeaLegacy co-founder Cristina Mittermeier ] said.
“We wanted the world to see what starvation of a majestic animal like this looks like.”
This may be how you get gullible people to donate money to a cause but it isn’t science: there is no evidence that this starving bear was a “victim” of sea ice loss caused by global warming.
SeaLegacy co-founder Cristina Mittermeier admitted as much later in the interview quoted above and said the reason the bear died was “irrelevent” — essentially admitting that she was using this poor individual as a serendipitous photo op to illustrate the future fate she imagines for all bears.
“It is impossible to tell why he was in this state. Maybe it could’ve been because of an injury or disease,” Mittermeier said.…
While Mittermeier said the bear had no obvious injuries and she believes it was too young to die of old age, she contends that’s irrelevant.
“The point is that it was starving, and … as we lose sea ice in the Arctic, polar bears will starve.”
In August, this bear would have been only recently off the sea ice: since most bears are at their fattest at this time of year, something unusual had to have affected his ability to hunt or feed on the kills he made when other bears around him did not starve and die. It could have been something as simple as being out-competed for food in the spring by older animals.
But if sea ice loss due to man-made global warming had been the culprit, this bear would not have been the only one starving: the landscape would have been littered with carcasses. This was one bear dying a gruesome death as happens in the wild all the time (there is no suggestion that a necropsy was done to determine cause of death, just like Stirling’s bear that supposedly died of climate change.)
In fact, research done by polar bear specialsts that work in the field shows that the most common natural cause of death for polar bears is starvation, resulting from one cause or another (too young, too old, injured, sick) (Amstrup 2003):
“Starvation of independent young as well as very old animals must account for much of the natural mortality among polar bears… Also, age structure data show that subadults aged 2-5years survive at lower rates than adults (Amstrup 1995), probably because they are still learning hunting and survival skills.”…
“I once observed a 3-year-old subadult that weighed only 70 kg in November. This was near the end of the autumn period in which Beaufort Sea bears reach their peak weights (Durner and Amstrup 1996), and his cohorts at that time weighed in excess of 200 kg. This young animal apparently had not learned the skills needed to survive and was starving to death.” [my bold]
But as Mittermeier has made clear, facts don’t matter in cases like this Somerset Island bear’s death: it’s all about the message.
I’ve asked this question before because it speaks to the present political climate: where were the appeals to help the many starving polar bears back in the spring of 1974 when females with newborn cubs were starving in the Eastern Beaufort Sea because the thick spring ice drove ringed seals away before they gave birth (Stirling 2002)?
Here is what Stirling and Lunn (1997:177) had to say about the mortality event of 1974 that they witnessed:
“…in the spring of 1974, when ringed seal pups first became scarce, we capture two very thin lone adult female polar bears that had nursed recently, from which we deduced they had already lost their litters. A third emaciated female was accompanied by two cubs which were so thin that one could barely walk. We have not seen females with cubs in this condition in the Beaufort Sea, or elsewhere in the Arctic, before or since.”
What Stirling and Lunn witnessed and documented is scientific evidence that natural variation in spring sea ice can have devastating effects on polar bears, including mass mortality events (Crockford 2017).
However, we have not seen any similar mass starvation events that have been conclusively shown to be caused by low summer sea ice.
One starving bear is not scientific evidence that man-made global warming has already negatively affected polar bears but it is evidence that some activists will use any ploy to advance their agenda and increase donations.
The London-based Global Warming Policy Forum is a world leading think tank on global warming policy issues. The GWPF newsletter is prepared by Director Dr Benny Peiser - for more information, please visit the website at www.thegwpf.com.