A biologist caught on camera a devastating glimpse of the effects of climate change: a starving polar bear scavenging fruitlessly for scraps of food on dry land.
The bear was spotted on Baffin Island, off Canada’s northern coast, not far from Greenland. As sea ice in the area has retracted due to global warming, the area’s polar bears have disproportionately suffered.
Polar bears primarily eat seals. But because polar bears aren’t nearly as agile as their prey, they stake out seals’ breathing holes on sea ice and wait for their lunch to pop up for air. With less sea ice to perch on, however, some are starving.
A 2016 NASA-funded study conducted by researchers at the University of Washington found that sea ice concentration in summer months was declining at a rate of up to 9 percent per decade in polar bear habitats, like Baffin Island.
The skinny, disheveled bear in the footage, captured by National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen, can be seen rifling through a trash can used by native Inuit fishers.
Nicklen, a biologist-turned-photographer who’s seen over 3,000 bears in the wild, thinks that the bear was mere hours from death when his crew saw it.
He thought about helping the bear, but anything he did would have only prolonged its suffering, he said. “It’s not like I walk around with a tranquilizer gun or 400 pounds of seal meat,” Nicklen told National Geographic.
Cover image: Paul Nicklen/National Geographic