The new viral face of climate change is an emaciated polar bear.

The video went viral this week when posted on Instagram by National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen, a biologist by training and the founder of non-profit Sea Legacy.

Nicklen shot the footage on a Canadian island inside the Arctic Circle wherein the bear appears in the video lying down, digging through a metal trash bin for scraps, and, later finally sinking into the ground, exhausted.

“It’s a slow, painful death,” Nicklen writes in a description of the video. “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.

My entire @Sea_Legacy team was pushing through their tears and emotions while documenting this dying polar bear. 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. This is what starvation looks like. The muscles atrophy. No energy. 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. There is no band aid solution. There was no saving this individual bear. People think that we can put platforms in the ocean or we can feed the odd starving bear. The simple truth is this—if the Earth continues to warm, we will lose bears and entire polar ecosystems. This large male bear was not old, and he certainly died within hours or days of this moment. But there are solutions. We must reduce our carbon footprint, eat the right food, stop cutting down our forests, and begin putting the Earth—our home—first. Please join us at @sea_legacy as we search for and implement solutions for the oceans and the animals that rely on them—including us humans. Thank you your support in keeping my @sea_legacy team in the field. With @CristinaMittermeier #turningthetide with @Sea_Legacy #bethechange #nature #naturelovers This video is exclusively managed by Caters News. To license or use in a commercial player please contact info@catersnews.com or call +44 121 616 1100 / +1 646 380 1615”

A post shared by Paul Nicklen (@paulnicklen) on

In his emotional caption on Instagram, Nicklen wrote that his entire team was “pushing through tears” while documenting this bear, who “certainly died within hours of this moment.”

The World Conservation Union estimates that there are between 20,000-25,000 polar bears in the wild, mostly on sea ice in the Arctic Circle, where they live, breed, and hunt for seals, their primary prey. But sea ice is declining rapidly – at a rate of 4.6% per decade, according to the World Wildlife Fund – pushing polar bears onto land, where their natural prey is scarce, for five to six months at a time.

This puts them at increased risk of starvation. Indeed, in his Instagram caption, Nicklen wrote, “This is what starvation looks like. The muscles atrophy. No energy. It’s a slow, painful death.”

The video has been watched more than 3.5 million times on Nicklen’s personal Instagram, as well as on National Geographic’s, and has been picked up by media around the world.

This is not the first time that an image of a polar bear has gone viral, though. In his documentary An Inconvenient Truth, former Vice President Al Gore uses an animated video of a swimming polar bear unable to find sea ice as a way to drive home the impending realities of global warming, while in 2015, wildlife photographer Kerstin Langenberger captured another viral image of a gaunt bear.

A polar bear unable to find sea ice is a powerful symbol for climate change in Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth"

The threats to polar bears have not gone away since Gore’s video or Langengberger’s photo, leading to the question: can viral save an endangered species?

Nicklen made an impassioned appeal on Instagram: “We must reduce our carbon footprint, eat the right food, stop cutting down our forests, and begin putting the Earth—our home—first.”


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