Editor’s Note: This story’s headline has been updated for clarification.
The sight of a gaunt, emaciated polar bear scavenging for food left filmmakers in tears when they came across it.
The team, which included Paul Nicklen of SeaLegacy, caught sight of the bear on Baffin Island, Nunavut in July, when there is naturally little ice.
“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,” Nicklen wrote on Instagram.
The bear can be seen rummaging through garbage and chewing on an old snowmobile seat.
Polar bear scientist Ian Stirling from the University of Alberta said the video was “painful to look at.”
He explained that the polar bear was likely in its last stages of dying; and that while you can’t know for sure how a bear died without an autopsy, this bear was young and likely suffering from starvation.
Though polar bear biologist Jeff Higdon questioned that and in a series of tweets suggested the bear may have had bone cancer.
As the climate warms, arctic sea ice melts earlier in the year. That restricts the polar bear’s normal eating habits, which are usually using the ice for a platform for hunting for seals, Stirling explained
Nicklen posted the video of the bear’s slow search for food to Instagram on Wednesday, where it’s been viewed more than one million times.
Stirling said that this isn’t a single occurrence and he’s seen scenes like this before.
“By necessity, this is going to be more common because there’s simply going to be hungrier or more hungry bears,” Stirling explained.
In a statement, Nicklen called the scene “heart-wrenching.”
“This video was one of the hardest things I have ever filmed – we were sobbing, the whole SeaLegacy team. It was impactful and disturbing,” he said.
“The first instinct is to help, to save him somehow, but his legs muscles had atrophied beyond repair, and nothing we could have done would have saved his life.”
He said he posted the video to urge people to slow climate change and reduce their carbon footprint.
Stirling said while the video was touching it’s important to remember that climate warming isn’t just about polar bears.
“The Arctic is a very big piece of real estate,” he said. “This is happening in several different areas of the Arctic every year.
“So it’s a very important video to see. It’s also important to take in the whole context of what it’s telling us.”