People did not see 'full story' behind iconic starving polar bear image, photographer says

'The connection between an individual animal’s death and climate change is rarely clear—even when an animal is as emaciated as this polar bear'

Documentary makers film starving polar bear in iceless land

The photographer behind a viral image of a starving polar bear has addressed the complexity of the story which seemingly connected that particular polar bear’s dying state to an effect of climate change.

Cristina Mittermeier’s recent article for the National Geographic talked about images and videos that captured an emaciated polar bear in the Canadian Baffin Islands that went viral after they were published last year. Ms Mittermeier wrote that the visuals of the animal seen around the world, may not have told “the full story”.

In the article titled “Starving-Polar-Bear Photographer Recalls What Went Wrong”, Ms Mittermeier explained that she and fellow photographer Paul Nicklen had set out on a mission to capture images that spoke to the dangers of climate change. In 2014, Ms Mittermeier and Mr Nicklen co-founded SeaLegacy, an organisation that uses visual storytelling to spread awareness on ocean conservation.

Last year, Mr Nicklen spotted the polar bear while on a scouting trip before helping to assemble a SeaLegacy rescue team to the animal’s location. Mr Nicklen described the experience filming the starving polar bear as “soul-crushing” and haunting in a caption of a video published to Instagram December 2017.

“My entire SeaLegacy team was pushing through their tears and emotions while documenting this dying polar bear,” he wrote.

Indeed, the troubling images and video resonated with people around the world; Ms Mittermeier estimated that the footage reached 2.5 bn people. But Ms Mittermeier wrote that the photographers had lost control of the narrative as the footage went viral.

“The mission was a success, but there was a problem: We had lost control of the narrative,” she wrote. She added: “We had sent a ‘gut-wrenching’ image out into the world. We probably shouldn’t have been surprised that people didn’t pick up on the nuances we tried to send with it.”

Ms Mittermeier wrote that when the National Geographic picked up Mr Nicklen’s video, they added subtitles to the footage, such as “This is what climate change looks like”. She said the publication had initially gone “too far” with the captions as was unclear what caused that particular polar bear’s dying state. In his Instagram caption, Mr Nicklen wrote "this is what starvation looks like," as he urged people to implement global warming solutions.

The National Geographic has not immediately responded to The Independent’s inquiry on a statement regarding its initial messaging around the starving polar bear and climate change.

National Geographic issued the following editor’s note:

"National Geographic went too far in drawing a definitive connection between climate change and a particular starving polar bear in the opening caption of our December 2017 video about the animal. We said, ‘This is what climate change looks like.’ While science has established that there is a strong connection between melting sea ice and polar bears dying off, there is no way to know for certain why this bear was on the verge of death. Above is an updated version of the video".

Ms Mittermeier also noted that while the cause of that particular polar bear’s gaunt state was unknown, climate change can have grave effects on wildlife nonetheless.

"Climate change kills slowly and by proxy: through fire, drought, cold, and starvation," she wrote. "The connection between an individual animal’s death and climate change is rarely clear—even when an animal is as emaciated as this polar bear."

The US Department of Agriculture has concluded that climate change can alter the ecosystem and food supply for wildlife. Furthermore, studies have revealed that there’s a scientific consensus that the Earth’s climate is warming and its “extremely likely” due to human activity.

“I can’t say that this bear was starving because of climate change, but I do know that polar bears rely on a platform of sea ice from which to hunt,” Ms Mittermeier wrote. She added: “A fast-warming Arctic means that sea ice is disappearing for increasingly longer periods of time each year. That means many more bears will get stranded on land, where they can’t pursue the seals, walruses, and whales that are their prey and where they will slowly starve to death.”

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