This blog is written by Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Posts appear Monday & Wednesday.
Nature videos from National Geographic, Netflix, and the BBC can’t be trusted.
Exhibit 1: Two years ago, independent photographers encountered an emaciated polar bear in the Canadian Arctic. They knew nothing about its history, or its medical condition. Was it dying a natural death due to old age? Did it have cancer? They had no means of answering such questions.
Nevertheless, National Geographic added subtitles to that poignant footage. “This is what climate change looks like,” they proclaimed. Published online, the video was a sensation. Says photographer Cristina Mittermeier:
It became the most viewed video on National Geographic’s website – ever. News organizations around the world ran stories about it; social media exploded with opinions about it. We estimate that an astonishing 2.5 billion people were reached by our footage.
Eight months later, National Geographic admitted it “went too far in drawing a definitive connection” between this bear and climate change. But the damage was done. Billions of people had been misled.
Exhibit 2: In April of this year, a new nature documentary series titled Our Planet launched on Netflix. The second episode contains a harrowing sequence in which a handful of walruses tumble off a high cliff. (Editing makes it difficult to know how many separate animals we’re watching.)
The narrator, cultural icon Sir David Attenborough, knows who’s to blame. His voiceover tells us:
1. Human-caused climate change has dramatically melted sea ice.
2. Less ice means walruses have no choice but to gather on land.
3. This particular location was so crowded with walruses that some were compelled to traipse up a slope, after which they fell to their death.
The overall message couldn’t be clearer: evil humans are responsible. Once again, an upsetting wildlife video became international news.
But walruses have always gathered on land, even when sea ice is abundant. Records of them doing so extend back to the mid-1800s.
As was the case with Exhibit 1, Canadian zoologist Susan Crockford publicly blew the whistle. Her suspicion that most of the walruses at the bottom had actually been driven off the cliff by polar bears was later vindicated. The overcrowding claim was also difficult to believe once the producer admitted the massive gathering of walruses on screen had taken place hundreds of kilometres from the cliff.
Exhibit 3: Yesterday, a BBC television series, Seven Worlds, One Planet, also narrated by Attenborough, made yet another bogus claim. According to advance UK newspaper coverage, polar bears in Canada’s Hudson Bay are developing new hunting strategies in response to climate change.
For the first time, apparently, they’re leaping from rocks onto the backs of passing schools of beluga whales. Attenborough tells us: “This extraordinary behaviour has only been recorded here, in this remote corner of North America, and only in the last few years.”
Crockford says that’s poppycock. She points to research, published decades ago in the Journal of the Arctic Institute of North America, that describes such behaviour. While researchers watched from afar, a polar bear repeatedly leapt off slabs of floating ice. Twice in two days, it dragged a young beluga onto the slab and proceeded to devour it.
That was in 1985. Thirty-five years ago.