Seriously starving? Polar bear so skinny some say photo is fake, but real myth may be such sightings are rising


If a photo-gone-virtal of a starving Svalbard polar bear seems too tragic to be real, join the other skeptics claiming it isn’t.

The photo was posted on Facebook last week by Kerstin Langenberger, a German nature photographer and guide who’s spent most of the past decade in Svalbard and other polar regions. It shows a skeletal and apparently injured female polar bear that has just emerged from the water onto a small ice floe.

Langenberger, in an explanation accompanying the photo, stated she’s seeing female bears increasingly struggle to find food because they’re unable to return to the sea ice after giving birth to cubs.

“With the pack ice retreating further and further north every year, they tend to be stuck on land where there’s not much food,” she wrote. The cubs frequently starve as a result and “many times I have seen horribly thin bears, and those were exclusively females – like this one here.”

The post was shared by about 23,000 viewers and received about 2,500 comments by the middle of the week, with most of the latter expressing regret about the bear’s plight. But a steady, if small, audience of skeptics challenged the legitimacy of the photo.

“The Photoshopped is poorly done, front left leg is a hind leg, so much water is falling off only from behind and it’s like he’s moving fast according to that water falling off of it,” wrote Aimo K. Paniloo. “I could be wrong, but would that bear be able to swim in that condition?”

Kit Kovacs, a biodiversity research for the Norwegian Polar Institute, stated in an e-mail interview, “I cannot speak to whether the picture has been ‘doctored’ or not – I am not an expert of this sort.” But he noted bears in similar extreme conditions due to injury, old age or illness are sighted occasionally.

More significantly, Kovacs stated there’s reason to question claims the number of animals experiencing such hardships is increasing.

“Our monitoring work indicates that (on-average) bears in the Svalbard population have NOT declined in condition over the last two decades – based on male body masses and fat levels,” he wrote. “We use males only because female condition is so much more variable depending on their reproductive status (whether they have no cubs, young cubs etc.).”

Langenberger, who noted in her post she is familiar with the institute’s findings, stated her observations show “fat bears are nearly exclusively males which stay on the pack ice all year long.”

“How can a population be stable if it consists of less and less females and cubs?” she wrote. “How can a population be doing good if most bears will score a body index of 2-3 out of 5? Only once I have seen a bear getting a big fat ‘5,’ but several times I have seen dead bears and bears like this one: a mere ‘1’ on the scale, doomed to death.”

By the way, she told her skeptics, the photo is not altered.

“I could easily send you some more pictures or get you in contact with others who saw and photographed the same bear,” she wrote. “I have seen a few bears like this over the past years: that’s how a bear looks like if it’s nearly starved to death. So as much as I want it to be fake, it’s a documentary.”

Some accepted the message was legitimate, if not the suggestion.

“Not fake but not necessarily representative,” wrote commenter Max Caruso. “Why tug on uninformed peoples emotions?”