Footage of a starving polar bear dragging its bony legs on dry land has become a powerful symbol of climate change – even in its beleaguered state.
The video was taken by National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen in the Baffin Islands, Canada.
“When scientists say bears are going extinct, I want people to realize what it looks like. Bears are going to starve to death. This is what a starving bear looks like," Nicklen said in an interview with National Geographic.
The bear moves slowly, its fragile legs weakened by muscle atrophy. Starving and running out of options, the bear wanders near a human settlement and searches a bin for food. It comes up empty.
This simple act overtaxes the starving animal. The bear slumps to the ground, exhausted.
It’s not atypical for these bears to go months without food, waiting for the ice to solidify and for their food source of seals to return. However, climate change is prolonging the time the bears stay on land, extending their fasting season and, for many, engendering their demise.
While the polar bear is a symbol for what could happen with climate change, it's not clear what specifically happened to this poor creature. It's possible cancer overtook his body.
"We cannot prove that he is in this condition because of a lack of sea ice," Nicklen wrote. "But is it a glimpse into the future as ice reaches its lowest extent in recorded history?"
In this gut-wrenching moment, there was little Nicklen could do. It is illegal to feed polar bears in Canada, and even then he had no seal meat on hand, which would have done little in the long run to sustain the dying creature.
Instead, he said, the best he could was to prevent the bear from dying in vain and reveal the perils the creatures face. That he did do – a once powerful, half-ton creature now dragging its feeble legs is a startling reminder of the situation. By sharing the story of this one polar bear, he hopes to convey a larger message about the Earth warming.
"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,” wrote Nicklen, also a filmmaker with the conservation group Sea Legacy, on his Instagram. “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."