Starving bears?

Last week this image of a starving Polar Bear shocked the internet. Extremely thin and most likely dead by now. Due to climate change, so it seems. I often get questions what I see of this climate change and what is happening with the Polar Bears.

First of all, the numbers. For me it’s impossible to say something about the population size of the Polar Bears on Spitsbergen. I do sail around Spitsbergen several times each year and so far I’ve seen Polar Bears on each cruise, sometimes only a few, sometimes over 20 or more. These numbers haven’t really changed over the years. But that’s only a fraction of the total population and the sample size is too small, so no real conclusions can be drawn from this.

Thin bear in the fog


Then secondly, their body condition. For Polar Bears summer is a difficult period. Each summer the sea ice is melting, the ice bears use to find their food, seals. This means they have to move with the ice, or stay behind on land and wait for the ice returns. The first group will be able to hunt during summer and is to be expected to be in better condition as the second group, who is stuck on land without much to eat on. They might find a seal on a small iceberg in front of a glacier, feed on bird eggs or, if they are really lucky, find a carcass of a whale or walrus to feed on, but most of the time they are just waiting for the ice to return.
We keep track of their fitness with a fat score, 1 being the thinnest, 5 being the fattest. This was the first year I really kept track of the fitness of most bears, so I can’t really compare with previous years. However, most bears I saw had a fat-score between 2 and three, most of them closer to 2, with a few 4’s and a few 1-2’ss, like the bear in the image above. This means most bears have a below average fitness and were in need of some food. The bears of the ice we doing a little better as the ones on land, especially at the end of the season. The bear in the picture above was photographed at Isispynten, a tiny island near the majestic Austfonna ice cap, far away from the sea ice. Very thin, we could easily count his bones, he just stood there, motionless. We all felt very sorry for him, but there wasn’t much we could do. Later we found two more bears, both of them not much fatter as this one… And the ice is not likely to return before October or November, so that gives this bears two more months to survive on their nearly none-existing fat reserves… And with the ice melting earlier each season and returning later, this part will only be longer and longer…

Arjen Drost

Arjen is a Polar ecologist, nature photographer and full time expedition guide on expedition cruise ships in both Polar regions. With his pictures and stories he likes to show the beauty of these very fragile and threatened places.


  • I heard there is a programme set up to help them. The polar nordic countries will work together to help their surviving possibilities. One of the first things was getting tourists farther away from them.


    • I think the only thing that will really help them is to do something about the disappearing ice. At the moment that’s their biggest threat (in my opinion). Of course, that doesn’t mean that other threats shouldn’t be addressed. However, I doubt that tourism, at least in the way we run it, pose a big threat. We keep a distance from the bears and will back off if a bear feels disturbed or threatened. Most of the time we let the bears come to us (on a ship of course) in stead of coming towards them. And in return we create a lot of awareness of what is happening in the Polar area’s.
      But about what program are you talking? Do you maybe have a link? I haven’t read anything about that. All initiatives are good of course.

      Regards, Arjen


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