A heartbreaking picture taken by wildlife photographer Kerstin Langenberger sums up the grim realities facing arctic animals in the face global warming. With warmer summers and pack ice melting at alarming rates, the seals and other aquatic animals that polar bears would traditionally hunt are farther out of reach, which means polar bears are being forced onto land to forage for food.
Kerstin writes that the main reason people visit Svalbard, the Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, is to see polar bears. Being a regular visitor, she is sensitive to the changes more than most.
“At first glance, everything is as it has always been in one of the most easily accessible polar bear populations of the world, strongly protected and doing good, so some scientists say,” she writes in her caption. “But are they really doing good, the bears up here?”
“I am a critically minded person, and I observe. I see the summers being so pleasant (and warm) as never before. I see the glaciers calving, retreating dozens to hundreds of metres every year. I see the pack ice disappearing in record speed. Yes, I have seen bears in good shape – but I have also seen dead and starving polar bears. Bears walking on the shores, looking for food, bears trying to hunt reindeer, eating bird’s eggs, moss and seaweed. And I realized that the fat bears are nearly exclusively males which stay on the pack ice all year long.”
“The females, on the other hand, which den on land to give birth to their young, are often slim. With the pack ice retreating further and further north every year, they tend to be stuck on land where there’s not much food. In the first year, they lose their first cub. In the second year, they lose their second (and last) cub. Only once I have seen a mother with a nearly independent cub. Only few times I have seen beautifully fat mothers with beautifully fat young. Many times I have seen horribly thin bears, and those were exclusively females – like this one here. A mere skeleton, hurt on her front leg, possibly by a desperate attempt to hunt a walrus while she was stuck on land.”
“Experts claim the Svalbard population is stable, even rising. Well, here comes my question: how can a population be stable if it consists of less and less females and cubs? How can a population be doing good if most bear will score a body index of 2-3 out of 5? Only once I have seen a bear getting a big fat “5”, but several times I have seen dead bears and bears like this one: a mere “1” on the scale, doomed to death. I do not have scientific data to proof my observations, but I have eyes to see – and a brain to draw conclusions.
Kerstin sums up her post with a call to action: “Climate change is happening big deal here in the Arctic. And it is our decision to trying to change this. So: let’s do something about the biggest threat of our time. Maybe we cannot save this bear here. But every little action we do to change our ways is a step in the right direction. We just have to get started and keep on going!”