Video Of Starving Bear Shows 'Soul-Crushing' Threat To Polar Bears

“It’s a slow, painful death. When scientists say polar bears will be extinct in the next 100 years, I think of the global population of 25,000 bears dying in this manner.”

With wispy white fur loosely hanging over his skeletal body, a young polar bear struggles to pull himself to his feet to forage for food.

Peering into a rusty garbage can nearby, the bear finds a dried-up snowmobile seat inside — and, hopeful for a small source of nourishment for his starving body, his head hangs low as he chews on the scrap. He then settles back down into the grass, seemingly clinging to life.

This was the heartbreaking scene captured on video by National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen and filmmakers from the conservation group Sea Legacy while on assignment on Baffin Island in Canada over the summer.

The emaciated bear has become a symbol of what some conservationists are calling the future of the species — which has faced a steady decline in food supply, partially from melting sea ice that many attribute to global warming.

Nicklen, a biologist-turned-photographer who has documented the lives of Arctic species for years, said the encounter was one that left him “pushing through tears.”

“It’s a soul-crushing scene that still haunts me, but I know we need to share both the beautiful and the heartbreaking if we are going to break down the walls of apathy,” Nicklen said. “This is what starvation looks like … It’s a slow, painful death. When scientists say polar bears will be extinct in the next 100 years, I think of the global population of 25,000 bears dying in this manner.”

By sharing the footage, Nicklen hopes to show a fate that many other bears could face due to rising temperatures. Spending nearly half of their life out on sea ice, polar bears rely heavily on it as a means for travel, breeding and hunting. For the past five years, ice coverage has been lower than average — and November 2017 has shown especially low amounts.

When the ice melts during the summer, polar bears stay inland and go months without eating as they wait for the ocean to ice over again, which then gives them access to large populations of seals to hunt.

However, in 2002, researchers began to notice that the bears’ summer fasting period was extending.

Fifteen years later, the ice continues to melt earlier in the year, scientists say, forcing bears to stay inland and rely on fat reserves for longer periods of time — leading to conditions like those shown in Nicklen’s footage, where bears grow weak and starve.

“This is absolutely what reduced survival looks like,” Geoff York, senior director of conservation for Polar Bears International, told The Dodo. “We expect to see higher than normal mortality and reduced survival of older and younger bears in areas where sea ice loss is crossing energetic thresholds and altering the movements, distribution and hunting success of polar bears.”

Despite warmer conditions, which threaten the bears’ icy habitats, York added that there are many additional factors that come into play when assessing the ailment of the bear in the video — and that warming waters could be just one of them.

“The polar bear in the [video] clearly appears to be on its last legs, is in extremely poor body condition and visibly appears to be starving,” York said. “The cause of that starvation is entirely unknown. It could be related to age, injury, disease or other factors limiting its success in obtaining prey.”

To Nicklen, however, one thing is clear: As the bears’ habitats continue to shrink, they’re at a heightened risk of meeting the same fate of the now-famed emaciated bear in his footage.

“The simple truth is this ... we will lose bears and entire polar ecosystems,” Nicklen said. “This large male bear was not old, and he certainly died within hours or days of this moment. But there are solutions.”

To find out how you can help protect polar bears from extinction, check out this guide. You can also make a donation to Polar Bears International.