Heartbreaking photos show the moment two baby polar bears play tug-of-war with a plastic bag they had found in the snow, before eating ‘a good chunk of’ it.
The unsettling images, which were captured by Arctic expedition leader Jens Wikström, from Gothenberg, Sweden, serve to highlight the growing severity of plastic pollution and the consequences for animals in the wild.
The polar bears played with the plastic for around 15 minutes as Wikström watched on in horror, unable to do anything to prevent the dangerous plastic from ending up in the animals’ bellies.
The 30-year-old Arctic expedition leader photographed the mammals at Lifdefjorden in Svalbard, Norway, from a safe distance of 98 feet. Describing the sight as ‘devastating’, Wikström said he was ‘processing in real time what happens to our ecosystem when we don’t take care of our sh*t’.
‘It ends up in the bellies of these animals,’ Wikström, who has sailed for nine years, added, before going on to explain that the polar bear cubs found the black plastic bag after digging up the snow at the shoreline.
At that point, they started to ‘rip it apart as a toy’ before eating ‘a good chunk of it’, with Wikström adding: ‘They play with anything they can possibly get their hands on.’
On these remote islands of the Arctic, I’ve seen young curious bears and Arctic foxes eating the plastic pollution that often drifts ashore with the currents from the Arctic Ocean Northeast of Svalbard or with the Gulf Stream that come up from Europe.
It’s no secret we have a lot of pollution… I just hope people will think twice before leaving plastic bags or cigarette butts on the ground, you never know where it will end up.
It is also concerning that microplastics are affecting the food chain of fish and seals, so plastic is already getting into the polar bear’s diet as they predate on these. And when it gets into the diet it can affect the milk of the mother as well.
Population surveys in 2017 suggested there were only 250 bears that roam the coastal region around Svalbard, where the photos were taken, although many more live in the pack ice – which is hard for humans to access and therefore get an accurate number.
And despite the challenges of plastic pollution and climate change, the polar bears in Svalbard are currently coping quite well as they are thought to be well fed.
However, their dependence on sea ice makes them highly vulnerable to a changing climate; with some projections suggesting we could have an almost ice-free Arctic before 2050, it’s never been more vital to take action to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.
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