PHOENIX — When Paul Nicklen saw an emaciated polar bear in its death throes, he wanted to remember the scene, record it and share it as a cautionary tale of the bleak future facing the species, one federal wildlife officials fear could largely vanish from the Arctic.
Nicklen, a National Geographic photographer and the founder of conservation group SeaLegacy, was in Canada's Baffin Islands with other SeaLegacy members when he saw the bear scavenging for food, according to National Geographic.
The magazine's account of his experience notes that polar bears "have long been unwitting mascots for the effects of climate change" because ever-increasing temperatures, rising sea levels and human-caused global warming have devastated the bears' main source of food — seals.
Without readily available seals, starving polar bears often venture into human settlements looking for any food they can find, according to the report.
In the three days it's been online, Nicklen's Instagram video of the incident has garnered more than 1 million views.
"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," Nicklen wrote in his Instagram post. "This is what starvation looks like. The muscles atrophy. No energy. It’s a slow, painful death."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in January updated the polar bear's conservation management plan, which stated the "single most important" step for the species' survival is addressing warming in the Arctic.
Increasing amounts of greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere are largely to blame for Arctic warming, according to the report.
"Short of action that effectively addresses the primary cause of diminishing sea ice, it is unlikely that polar bears will be recovered," the report says.
Nicklen's video doesn't capture the bear's death, and although he couldn't know for sure if it suffered from other health issues, he believes the animal died of starvation. He sees a broader connection to global warming and the cataclysmic effects it could rain down on the species.
"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," he wrote. "There is no band aid solution. There was no saving this individual bear."
The FWS report says addressing Arctic warming requires "global action" — something Nicklen called for in his social media post.
"This large male bear was not old, and he certainly died within hours or days of this moment," he wrote. "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."