Warning: The video attached to this article will be a heartbreaker for some readers.
A chance encounter between a malnourished polar bear and the conservation group Sea Legacy provided photographer Paul Nicklen with the chance to document the sad state of a polar bear reduced to scavenging through garbage cans, unable to hunt due to the severe reduction in ice flows caused by global warming.
Nicklen is quite familiar with these bears, having grown up in Canada’s far north, and immediately realized that the bear was in distress. The sight affected the team deeply: "We stood there crying — filming with tears rolling down our cheeks," according to Nicklen.
Polar Bears are ambush hunters, utilizing favorite spots either at holes in, or at the edge of surface ice, lying in wait to snag a seal that has come up for air. As global warming has progressed, surface ice in the Arctic has regressed, leaving the bears without these ambush points to hunt from: as the tundra provides little to no cover to sneak up on a potential meal, the bear’s prey can see them coming from far off, allowing them to easily avoid these huge hunters.
Nicklen has received criticism for not helping the malnourished bear, but his hands were tied, as it is against the law in Canada for humans to feed wild polar bears, and Nicklen and the Sea Legacy team also lacked the resources to aid the creature: "Of course, that crossed my mind. But it’s not like I walk around with a tranquilizer gun or 400 pounds of seal meat."
Viewers of the video available on National Geographic’s website should be aware that the video speed has been reduced and mournful music has been added to the footage to further emphasize the emotional aspect of the footage. This is not meant to detract from Nicklen’s message, as even in still photographs it is readily apparent that the emaciated bear is in distress. But sometimes a heavy hand is required for some viewers.
"When scientists say bears are going extinct, I want people to realize what it looks like. Bears are going to starve to death," explains Nicklen, regarding the rapid loss of their hunting habitat. "This is what a starving bear looks like."