When we were approached by a photographer, wondering if we wanted to comment on a dead polar bear that he thought had starved, we were torn. We realize the power that an image like that can command, how it can move people. On the other hand, WWF is an organization that prides itself on being guided by science. Could we make a scientifically defensible, but still compelling comment on this image of a dead bear?
We do believe that bears are likely to be in trouble in the coming years. As the sea ice retreats (as pretty well all climate and ice modelers agree it will) the bears’ preferred hunting grounds will shrink in time and space. It does not mean all the bears will starve. Some individuals may starve, others may move, others still may even find ways to adapt and survive through longer periods when the sea ice is absent. Current studies from Hudson Bay indicate that the longer the bears are off the ice, the worse their condition is likely to be, and they will likely have lower rates of reproduction and cub survival.
Having said all that, we could not take the death of this one individual as evidence that he had died from climate-induced starvation. The circumstantial evidence was there – lack of ice in the area the body was found in the months preceding the find. But the bear was old – reportedly 16 years old. Many bears do not survive that long in the wild. Any number of factors may have led to this bear’s death. Without that information, without a “smoking climate gun”, we could not make claims that may not be scientifically defensible.