Close quarters with a cannibal

December 9, 2009

Iain Williams is a freelance Wildlife and Nature Photographer based out of Hobart, Australia.  His exclusive photos of a polar bear eating a cub were published as a slideshow on www.reuters.com. Below, Iain recounts how he came to take the photographs. The opinions expressed are his own.

Michael Perry, our chief correspondent in Australia, added a caption that referenced a vast global study in 2008. That study, published here, said that human-generated climate  change had  turned some polar bears into cannibals

CANADA/

A male polar bear carries the head of a polar bear cub it killed and cannibalized in an area about 300 km (186 miles) north of the Canadian town of Churchill November 20, 2009.

To photograph polar bears in the wild requires considerable pre-planning.  I engaged Frontiers North to assist with the logistics to approach polar bears at close quarters in sub-zero temperatures.  Before I departed, I knew what I wanted to achieve – images that would help to show the plight of the polar bear in relation to global climate change.

On the day I captured these images, I observed ravens engaged in what appeared to be antagonizing behavior towards a large male polar bear.  On closer inspection I realized that the ravens were pecking at bits of a carcass that the bear was consuming.  Circling the male bear was a smaller female polar bear that appeared to be exhibiting major signs of stress; her gait was unwieldy, her head was swaying from side to side and she was making continual low vocalizations.  It was only after some time that I realized the carcass was in fact a first year baby cub and the circling bear was the mother.

CANADA/

A male polar bear cannabalizes a polar bear cub November 20, 2009.

After the male bear had finished consuming the carcass and moved away, the female bear approached the carcass, sniffed at it, and  picking it up gently within her jaws, she proceeded to carry it away – where to is unknown as I could not follow her.

CANADA/

A male polar bear carries the head of a polar bear cub it killed and cannibalized November 20, 2009.

Photographing such an event is always psychologically traumatic as the cute and fuzzy image of an animal is transposed into an animal eating to survive.  It’s at this time that you must concentrate on acquiring the images with a steady hand and remove all emotion from the equation.  The images were taken with a Canon pro-body camera using an assortment of lens from 500 to 300 mm.

With the climate change conference being held in Copenhagen, I knew the images I had taken were topical and I had minimal time to publish them for maximum impact.  The images were posted to my blog and my website after which, I approached Reuters for global syndication.

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The remains of a polar bear cub stain the snow after it was killed and cannibalized by a male polar bear November 20, 2009.

12 comments

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I fail to see how this is topical to the global warming conference. Male bears of all types, polar, grizzly, brown, black, have always been a danger to bear cubs. They are well-known to hunt and eat the cubs, if they have a chance. This has absolutely nothing to do with global warming or the lack thereof.

Posted by JJ999 | Report as abusive

this article is not meant to be in any way a part of the global warming topic.

Posted by moshahid | Report as abusive

Y

Posted by JJ999 | Report as abusive

ok, let’s try this again.
You say quote”this article is not meant to be in any way a part of the global warming topic”endquote, then why did the photographer say this:
quote”With the climate change conference being held in Copenhagen, I knew the images I had taken were topical and I had minimal time to publish them for maximum impact. The images were posted to my blog and my website after which, I approached Reuters for global syndication.”endquote?
And this:
quote”Before I departed, I knew what I wanted to achieve – images that would help to show the plight of the polar bear in relation to global climate change”endquote.
Sounds like it is supposed to have a LOT to do with that topic.

Posted by JJ999 | Report as abusive

Michael Perry, our chief correspondent in Australia, added a caption that referenced a vast global study in 2008. That study, published here, said that human-generated climate change had turned some polar bears into cannibals.

Posted by vailcowboy | Report as abusive

Well, sorry, but the “vast global study” is a crock, then. Human-generated climate change has not turned some polar bears into cannibals. Bears, especially male bears, are naturally cannibalistic, and that includes polar bears. If that study makes such a statement, then it throws the entire study into the probable “crock” category.
And I didn’t quote captions added by Michael Perry, what I quoted was supposedly written by the person taking the photos.

Posted by JJ999 | Report as abusive

Pictures with great impact, really good ones.
But I, too, do not see the relation with Bear’s cannibalism and the global warming.
Studying the subject a bit deeper or asking to bears specialists informations beforehand (or/and after) would have been helpful for this matter.
In Wikipedia it is mentionned that polar bear eats other bears.

But anyway great pictures!!

Posted by QHH | Report as abusive

I am the photographer who took these images.

I wanted to try and document photographically how changing environmental conditions is affecting local wildlife.

It is true that polar bears can and do kill cubs, however, this activity is not frequent. Polar bear scientists have indicated that cases of infanticide are becoming more frequent as sea ice generation is delayed.

The photographs are not meant to indicate or suggest global warming (natural or human-induced) in anyway. Sea ice generation or lack of can be caused by a variety of environmental stimuli. I am not a glaciologist so can not comment on this subject.

The photographs document animal behavior and how animals are altering their behavior to climate-induced conditions. According to polar bear scientists, infanticide is increasing from past years.

It was just coincidence that I discovered the the climate change summit was being held at this time.

I trust this clears up any concerns.

Posted by Anaspides | Report as abusive

Mr. Williams is right to assert a connection between the degradation of polar bear habitat and instances of cannibalism. While it is true bears, particularly male bears, are pleased to cannibalize cubs when they can, instances of cannibalism become more common as bears’ ranges decrease. A polar bear cub with a sow protector is a much less convenient meal than an unprotected seal pup: Eating protected cubs entails a high potential for energetic expenditure and threat of injury: bears will eat other bears, but very rarely will they try for large bear.
As bear populations are densified on disappearing or increasingly unreachable floes, and available seal populations dwindle, bears, especially large males, will turn much more determinedly to high risk cannibalism; food scarcity and corresponding territorial aggression make cannibalistic behaviours less opportunistic. Sows and cubs are also afforded less opportunity to avoid large males; bears’ smell is very keen, and normally,with adequate habitat and food resources, the sow would diligently avoid large boar.
Increase in instances of cannibalism is certainly a sign that these bears are experiencing a period of increased stress. Loss of habitat and food supply not only pits bears against one another as they compete for food, but densifies populations, creating situations which foster, and even necessitate, aggressive behaviours.

Posted by rly | Report as abusive

Polar bears have been known to cannibalize each other since at least 1977. To claim it is happening now “more frequently” is pure speculation and unscientific. There is no proof what-so-ever that “man made global warming” caused this polar bear (or any other) to eat the cub.

Posted by Reace | Report as abusive

Researchers recently reported that the rising temperatures, which are causing Arctic ice to melt at an alarming rate, mean the polar bear – a Canadian icon – could be headed for extinction within the next 100 years. The bears are dependent on the ice that covers Arctic waters. That’s where they sniff out seals, who breath through holes in the ice. Polar bears can smell seals, their main food source, from up to a kilometre away.

Now that ice appears to be disappearing. Pictures from space show that roughly 10% of the permanent ice cover is melting every year, and researchers predict that the process is likely to speed up.

That’s because as sea ice melts, it no longer reflects the sun’s heat back into the atmosphere. The water absorbs the heat instead, which means more melting. The bears already appear to be feeling the heat. They have a unique ability to conserve energy for months at a time when they can’t find food. But the melting ice means those periods of starvation are lasting longer and longer for some animals

Posted by numbuh4 | Report as abusive