Guest Post by World Renowned Polar Bear Biologist Ian Stirling

Posted Dec. 15th, 2010 by Daniel J. Cox

Dr. Stirling had requested a more in-depth response than what the normal blog comments allow. His response below is in regards to my earlier post of the polar bear cub dying of starvation video

Dr. Ian Stirling worlds leading authority on polar bear research

Posting this video of a polar bear cub dying of starvation on the western coast of Hudson Bay, only a few weeks ago was both a brave and important thing to do. Although it clearly and understandably upset some viewers, it was not an act of either heartlessness or exploitive sensationalism. Life in the natural world is tough. Animals kill and eat each other in ways that are difficult to watch every day and the weaker, for whatever reason, die regularly in sometimes gruesome fashion as we have seen in the video.  Some people have asked why the bears were not fed. The animals were in Wapusk National Park. National Parks are dedicated to maintaining natural environments and natural biological processes without the hand of humans to the greatest degree possible. Thus, it would have been illegal to try to feed these bears and even getting close enough to do so would have caused further unacceptable disturbance. Most likely, the bears would have tried to escape from an approaching vehicle, or charged a human approaching on foot, neither of which would be ethical treatment of the bears, not to mention being illegal. Even if they could have been fed, the cubs in particular were already so far gone by the time they were first observed, it is unlikely they could have been saved. I think the survival of the female is questionable as well because of her poor condition – she looks like a bone rack and appears to be having some difficulties with walking as well. Analysis of the video by veterinarians confirms the convulsions were the result of the last phases of starvation, not shivering because of the cold.

Dr. Stirling share time with PBI kids of Project Polar Bear in Churchill.

However, the importance of this video is that it graphically illustrates something that probably should not have happened, but for a different reason than not being fed by humans. Increasing climate warming is causing the sea ice in Hudson Bay to melt earlier and freeze later.  Breakup is now a full three weeks or so earlier on average than it was only 30 years ago and freeze-up is getting later.  This December, freeze-up was at least three weeks later than it would have been only a few decades ago. This means the bears are forced ashore before they are finished feeding in early summer, at the most important feeding period of the year. However, they then have to survive for longer on a smaller supply of stored fat. This is like filling the gas tank of your care ¾ full and then expecting to be able to drive as far as you could on a full tank.  Even with the shortened feeding period, some bears, either because of luck or being better hunters, are still able to store enough fat to last through the ever longer periods of open water. But some bears just may not be as good at hunting or, like females with hungry cubs to support with their milk, have greater demands on their stored resources.  Some of these, like the one in the video, run out before they can replenish themselves by catching seals from the ice again.  We can’t say for sure that these cubs died because of climate warming, but we can say that what is shown in the video is consistent with the kinds of things that have been predicted for some time, and documented, not just in Hudson Bay but elsewhere in the Arctic as well.

Krista Wright and Ian Stirling discuss all things polar bears

Death of course is as natural as life. I have studied polar bears for 40 years now and I found this difficult to watch, as have several of the people who have posted comments. Only once before have I watched a starving bear close to death. It was on the south coast of Devon Island in the High Arctic, just as a snow storm was starting. It was a 32 year old female in the last stage of dying of starvation in old age. She was emaciated and her eyes no longer burned with life.  However, unlike the cub, she had led a full natural life and I was sharing her last moments. Our eyes met and it was a privileged moment I will never forget. Unlike the cub in the video, I knew that although she would be dead very soon, she had lived a full life as a wild polar bear in unspoiled habitat.

Thus, in my opinion, the posting of this video is very important. It shows one of the unpleasant consequences of climate warming on polar bears because of negative changes in the patterns of breakup and freeze-up of the sea ice in Hudson Bay. Without wishing to sound insensitive, what we should really be concerned about is not the unpleasant death of a cub, that might have happened anyway, but that so little progress is being made to combat global climate warming. Even so, all is not doom and gloom. A very recent study in the international journal Nature, led by Dr Steven Amstrup, the Senior Scientist with Polar Bears International, has shown that there is enough time to act to slow global climate warming but only if the world acts fast enough. If this video, and what is happening not only to polar bears but to the whole arctic marine ecosystem concerns you, then you need to be letting your elected representatives know their action is needed and, as individuals, we all need to be doing what we can to reduce our own carbon footprints. We owe a big thank you to Dan Cox for being responsible enough to make this video in the first place and then to put it on the web for anyone to see and think about.

Ian Stirling, PhD, FRSC

Adjunct Professor

University of Alberta, Edmonton

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There are 2 comments on this post…
  1. MBHOn Feb. 10th, 2011

    I sincerely appreciate your response to comments left in lieu of the disturbing footage shot of the starving polar bear family. As a frequenter of North American national parks, I have the utmost respect for wildlife and am adamant about not intervening with their natural habitats.

    However, it seems that the difference between what is “natural” and “human-meddling” has always been, and has increasingly become, blurred. How we define those boundaries between the natural and artificial are ultimately political, and value-laden choices. For example, in the early days of climate change discourses, adaptation was a dirty word, but it is now part of the lingua franca. Humans have altered and “managed” their environments since time immemorial, so leaving a so-called “pristine” and unmolested space is a semantic illusion behind within which “nature” allegedly reins, even though this geographically bounded space is beholden to the vicissitudes of anthropogenic climate change. And if the alleged panacea geo-engineering will come to pass, who knows how its unintended consequences will affect the Arctic, developing countries and the rest of the world? Will we still sit back and allow “nature” to rein in ecologically sensitive areas?

    It seems that in the near future, the very premises, visions and human-nature relationships embodied in national parks will be challenged, as we struggle to understand our ambiguous role as caretakers and bystanders. It is just so sad that any attempt to have civil public debates about these issues trap us into an intractable bipartisan political morass, with neither side giving up any ground.

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      danieljcoxOn Feb. 10th, 2011

      What a well thought out, eloquent response. Thank you for posting your inspirational insight.

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