Polar Bear ‘Tragedy Porn’ Video Backfires

  • Date: 30/12/17
  • Daily Mail

There are signs of a more general backlash against the Somerset Island polar bear video. Even those scientists who are firm believers in man-made climate change have expressed disquiet.

And it is this message which has been picked up around the world, much to the anger of climate change sceptics who decry such images as ‘tragedy porn’. Among them is Canadian evolutionary biologist and blogger Dr Susan Crockford. ‘This may be how you get gullible people to donate money to a cause but it isn’t science,’ she wrote in a post three days after the release of the video

The video is unquestionably harrowing to watch — an emaciated polar bear stumbling through a terrain devoid of snow and ice, clumps of fur clinging to its sagging flesh and dragging one hind leg as it searches with increasing desperation for food.

There is no warning and no apology for presenting such images — but that is deliberate.

‘We know that it . . . will be deeply upsetting for many of you, but we cannot turn away from the urgent environmental crisis our planet is facing,’ says the accompanying introductory text on the website of environmental campaigners SeaLegacy.

The video is unquestionably harrowing to watch — an emaciated polar bear stumbling through a terrain devoid of snow and ice. A more damning indictment of man-made climate change would be hard to imagine

The video is unquestionably harrowing to watch — an emaciated polar bear stumbling through a terrain devoid of snow and ice. A more damning indictment of man-made climate change would be hard to imagine

Filmed on Somerset Island, near Baffin Island, and part of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, the footage purports to show a bear deprived of its hunting ground on the sea ice and forced to scavenge in a rubbish bin used by local fishermen. To the strains of a mournful soundtrack, the pathetic bear is seen chewing on a burnt piece of foam from a discarded snowmobile seat before slumping to the ground exhausted as the video fades to black.

A more damning indictment of man-made climate change would be hard to imagine. Indeed, since it was published on the website of renowned magazine National Geographic, the clip has gone viral.

‘Gut-wrenching’, ‘horrendous’ and ‘this should shame us all’ are typical of the comments on social media sites. The story has also been covered widely by the Press. ‘Video of Starving Polar Bear “Rips Your Heart Out of Your Chest” ’ was the New York Times headline, while The Guardian described how this ‘“Soul-crushing” video . . . exposes climate crisis’.

The outcry is understandable — but there is just one problem with these stories. Although the bear was presumed to have died in the days following the sighting, no post mortem was carried out on it. As a result, no one can be sure what killed it, or link its death to those of other polar bears SeaLegacy and other environmental campaigners have made emotive claims about in the past.

In 2015, for example, German photographer Kerstin Langenberger posted a photo of a similarly gaunt polar bear on her Facebook page.

Explaining that it was taken in Svalbard, an archipelago of islands between mainland Norway and the North Pole (where, incidentally, the BBC’s enchanting Christmas documentary, Snow Bears, was filmed), she said it showed just one of several underweight females she’d spotted there. She was in no doubt about the cause of its wretched condition.

 ‘I have eyes to see and a brain to draw conclusions. Climate change is happening, big deal here in the Arctic,’ she said. Despite her admission that she had no scientific data to support her conclusions, her online post spread worldwide.

A month later an image of a skeletal polar bear corpse was posted on the Instagram page of Paul Nicklen, a Canadian wildlife photographer and marine biologist who co-founded SeaLegacy with his partner Cristina Mittermeier, also a photographer and environmentalist.

SeaLegacy was unveiled at a high-profile event hosted by Prince Albert of Monaco at the principality’s Oceanographic Institute. Its mission is to make ‘high-impact visual communications that propel people to take action to protect our oceans’ — and Nicklen’s photograph was certainly ‘high impact’.

 Nicklen said that he had taken it in Svalbard in 2014 where he had encountered a number of dead bears. He went on: ‘These bears were so skinny, they appeared to have died of starvation as, in the absence of sea ice, they were not able to hunt seals . . . [Finding a dead polar bear] is now becoming much more common.’

The key word there is ‘appeared’, an admission echoed in the SeaLegacy report about the Somerset Island bear. ‘It wasn’t possible for scientists to tell us exactly what was causing this bear to starve to death,’ the accompanying text says.

But that attempt at objectivity is completely overshadowed by a headline declaring: ‘This is the face of climate change.’

And it is this message which has been picked up around the world, much to the anger of climate change sceptics who decry such images as ‘tragedy porn’.

Among them is Canadian evolutionary biologist and blogger Dr Susan Crockford. ‘This may be how you get gullible people to donate money to a cause but it isn’t science,’ she wrote in a post three days after the release of the video.

Others have gone further, calling the story ‘fake news’ and a ‘scam’.

While SeaLegacy and other campaigning organisations are never going to win over climate change sceptics, there are signs of a more general backlash against the Somerset Island footage. This ranges from the BBC’s restrained headline ‘Polar bear video: is it really the “face of climate change”?’ to Canada’s National Post newspaper accusing SeaLegacy of a ‘calculated public relations exercise’.

And even those scientists who are firm believers in man-made climate change have expressed disquiet.

He’s supported by Dr Steven Amstrup, chief scientist at the conservation organisation Polar Bears International. Although the footage was shot from some distance, he suggests the bear’s size and the pattern of hairs around its genital area indicate that it was a young adult male. The clue to all this lies in the violent sex life of the species.

Arctic wildlife biologist Dr Jeff Higdon, who’s worked in the region for the last 12 years, says: ‘I object to SeaLegacy drawing a straight line between that particular bear and climate change. It’s clearly starving but in my opinion that’s not because the ice suddenly disappeared and it could no longer hunt seals. There are lots of other possibilities as to how it ended up in that condition.’

Full story

Recent Popular Articles


We use cookies to help give you the best experience on our website. By continuing without changing your cookie settings, we assume you agree to this. Please read our privacy policy to find out more.