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'They'll All Be Gone': Video Of Starving Polar Bear Highlights Effects Of Melting Ice

By now, millions of people around the world have seen the video: A polar bear, gaunt and weak from starvation, pawing through garbage at an abandoned fishing camp on Baffin Island. The bear seems so exhausted from hunger, it can barely stand. The filmmakers believe the bear was just hours from death.

National Geographic published the video last week, bringing renewed attention to climate change and the decline of sea ice that polar bears need to hunt and find food.

Steven Amstrup, the chief scientist for the conservation group Polar Bears International, told NPR's Scott Simon that the images of the bear searching for food on land are heartbreaking for anyone, but particularly for him. Amstrup, 67, has studied polar bears for most of his adult life.

"I think that the photographers are correct that this bear was probably in its last hours of life," Amstrup says.

He says polar bears rely on sea ice surface to catch their food, principally two species of seals, and that food found on land is insufficient to feed them.

"We can think of the sea ice kind of as the polar bear's giant dinner plate," he says. "It's got these seals laying out there like giant fat pills, and that's what the polar bears have specialized on."

As earth's temperature warms, less sea ice will be available for polar bears to depend on for their hunting, Amstrup says.

Researchers know little about the polar bear captured on video, including how it became so malnourished. Photographer Paul Nicklen said he didn't see any scars on the animal when they shot the footage in late August.

Amstrup says the bear could have had a broken jaw or other injury preventing it from effectively catching food before the ice went away.

"We can't say for sure what caused the problem that this bear is experiencing, but we do know that ultimately if we don't stop the warming of the world, more and more bears will be experiencing this fate and ultimately, they'll all be gone," he says.

After the video published, Cristina Mittermeier, one of the filmmakers, responded to criticism about why they didn't intervene to help the bear. She says it "would have been madness" to approach a starving predator without a weapon, and that they were too far from a village to ask for help.

"In the end, I did the only thing I could: I used my camera to make sure we would be able to share this tragedy with the world," she said.

Isabel Dobrin in Digital News produced this story for the Web.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.