This past August, Kerstin Langenberger, a photographer and conservationist based in Germany, posted a photo that would soon blaze across the Internet.
The image, at once shocking and heartbreaking, shows an emaciated polar bear stumbling across the top of an ice floe off the coast of Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago between mainland Norway and the North Pole known for its polar bear populations. The bear's coat sags from its bony frame and the photo contrasts with the image most associate with this powerful, symbolic mammal of the Arctic.
DNews's Jennifer Viegas spoke to experts about the photo and what it might symbolize for the future of the Arctic and its animal inhabitants for this article. We followed up with Langenberger to hear her thoughts about the photo, the reactions to it and its possible implications.
We also reached out to former DNews writer Kieran Mulvaney, who authored the 2011 book, "The Great White Bear: A Natural & Unnatural History of the Polar Bear." Mulvaney took a photo of his own -- 17 years ago -- of an emaciated polar bear off the Beaufort Sea coast of Alaska. He shares his thoughts on what photos like these might mean below, after Langenberger's interview.
Q&A with Kerstin Langenberger
DNews: Have you seen other polar bears in the area that are as emaciated?
Langenberger: In the past four years I've seen about one extremely skinny bear a year, and every summer I see about 60-70 bears. So it is an unusual sight, yet normal. This was the most extreme sight, though, as it was so extremely powerful visually, with the bear being on a melting ice floe. Usually, the starving animals were on land. This one was close to land but on one of the last ice floes to be found.
Some have argued this bear may just be an older individual and unique for its emaciated state.
Yes and that was my first thought, too, before the bear stood up. I then saw that it was wounded and had starved due to a physical inability to hunt. I actually included that information in the text accompanying the image, but people seem to totally ignore that fact.
We were all stunned by the strange wound it had on its left foreleg: a long and seemingly clean cut. I cannot imagine another polar bear causing such a strange wound. I think that it might have been cause by a walrus tusk, though, but I have never seen a wound like that and it is just a theory. If the wound was indeed caused by a walrus, then the animal (a rather small bear) must have been desperate (meaning: hungry) in order to take the risk of attacking a walrus and then gaining this fatal injury. So: even if the injury is the reason this bear is a mere skeleton, I think it is climate change that might be responsible for the animal to have that wound to start with. It's a theory nobody can prove or disprove.
In the end, this picture just is such a powerful sight. Maybe the bear was killed by its injury, but climate change surely had its influence, too. This was not the only thin animal I have seen in my years on Svalbard. Climate change is so extremely visible up there, one cannot deny it.
Can you describe how you first saw this animal and how you approached for the photo?
I was on an expedition cruise ship, showing Svalbard, its landscapes and wildlife to tourists. It was a foggy and rainy day with some sea ice on the open water. Suddenly, there was this one single ice floe and on it a polar bear. We did not realize how thin it was until it stood up. I think everybody on board was shocked and felt pity for this animal. The captain and expedition leader turned the ship right away in order not to disturb it any more, so we only saw it for a brief moment. It was such a sad encounter.
How do you see your role as a photographer in the region?
I am just as much a conservationist and climate activist as a photographer. I want people to see the changes that are happening and how urgent it is to do something about it. I love nature and want others to feel the same awe I feel when I have the huge privilege to experience the Arctic. I want to show the beauty of nature to the world, but at the same time make aware of the ethical responsibility we have to protect it.
Any thoughts on the widespread response to your photo?
Amazed at first: I never expected such a response! Yet I totally understand it. It's a shocking picture: not many people have seen an animal in such an emaciated state. Polar bears are a token for climate change and are loved by most of the world: seeing it suffer shocks and moves. It's the same feelings I had when I saw this bear at first. I feel honored that this photo started a discussion about climate change again, and that, maybe, it might be the final reason for some people starting to change something at home.
I totally believe that every step into the right direction is important. Every single gram of CO2, that is not blown into the atmosphere, will help to slow down global warming - it's as easy as that!
See Kieran Mulvaney's photo and interview on the next page.