Technology & Science

Wildlife photography

Steven Kazlowski has been five centimetres from a polar bear's face, has been woken by a young bear that crashed into his tent and tapped his head curiously, has been enticed by a cub to play tag while the alert mother watched — and has never, not once, felt like dinner.

Will we see The Last Polar Bear in our lifetime?

Steven Kazlowski has been five centimetres from a polar bear's face, has been woken by a young bear that crashed into his tent and tapped his head curiously, has been enticed by a cub to play tag while the alert mother watched — and has never, not once, felt like dinner.

"But here is the catch," he adds from his Seattle home. "I have never spent much time around a starving polar bear."

Besides, humans — well, most of us — are too bony, lacking the comfort-food blubber the bears need to endure the cold. We're just spare ribs to a polar bear.

Kazlowski, a New York-born, wilderness-seeking photographer, has learned a lot about polar bears in the 13 years he has been shooting along Alaska's Arctic coast, the last nine of them building the portfolio in the book The Last Polar Bear: Facing the Truth of a Warming World.

Polar bears are, he says, inquisitive, sociable, and "super intelligent."

Kazlowski describes how, after waiting two weeks in bitter cold close to a den he and two Inupiat friends had scouted the previous fall, he watched — and photographed — as the adult female emerged with two tumbling eight- or nine-kilogram cubs.

She would not have had food in her belly for some five months. She would have lost a considerable amount of her body mass. She would have been a very hungry bear.

For two days he shot. "She knew she was being watched. The entire time I was shooting, I could tell by her look that we were not to leave the iglu and come nearer to her. She seemed to accept our presence as long as we stuck to the program," the book says.

Eventually she ambled off — the cubs spring-boarding around her — in the direction of the sea, drawn, no doubt, by the aroma of real food: fresh seal pup.

But this is not just a cuddly cub coffee-table book. Rather, this is a cry from a heart wrenched by the dramatic changes the photographer has observed.

By late this summer, a massive crack had opened in the giant floating Petermann glacier in northern Greenland, 4,500-year-old ice shelves had broken off Canada's Ellesmere Island, and the Arctic summer ice had diminished to the second lowest level since record keeping began in 1979.

Kazlowski believes the thaw will lead to the loss of "a great wild creature in one of the last wild environments left in the world."

The changes in the Arctic, he adds, are "a foreshadowing for the entire world."

If the essence is in the images, the substance lies in the eight essays documenting the science linking burning fossil fuels to climate change, the decades of work by Canadian Wildlife Service biologists that first showed bears were declining in sync with the ice, and the "ever-expanding presence" of oil development and production in Alaska.

Essayist Charles Wohlworth describes in detail the drowned polar bears spotted by the U.S. Minerals Management service and the unfortunate walrus calves, far from ice or shore, swimming after the small boats launched from a U.S. National Science Foundation icebreaker.

"The baby walruses, alone over the ocean abyss, were doomed," he writes.

"How do we preserve the polar bear and the whale now that the ice is going away?" hunter and elder Arnold Brower Sr. asked editor Christine Clifton-Thornton.

Kazlowski will go back to the ice and the snow as long as there are wild animals to capture on his Nikon D2X. But he is angry … angry that the ice is going, that animals are losing their habitat, at those who delay and demand more study. And angry at his own inability to stop contributing to the problem.

"I use all the things that are causing these problems. I am part of it. I haven't removed myself from it," he said.

"We have laid a track, and there is a train on it, and the train is us and our society going forward …

"And eventually, this train is going to hit a dead end."

now