For those who missed it on Wednesday, here is the text of my essay on the walrus fiasco published in the Financial Post section of Canada’s National Post. A map of the region under discussion is here.
Susan J. Crockford April 24, 2019 9:46 AM EDT
Now that polar bears have failed to die off in response to a sea-ice decline as promised, climate alarmists are looking hard for a new icon. They think they’ve found it in the walrus. And for their purpose, walruses are more useful dead than alive, and best of all splattered against sharp rocks from a great height.
For instance, a now-famous episode of Netflix’s “Our Planet” documentary series, released this month and narrated by veteran BBC broadcaster David Attenborough, features walruses falling from atop a high cliff and bouncing helplessly over rocks to their deaths. The incident occurs after what’s called a “land haulout,” which is when large herds of walrus females and calves emerge from the water to gather and rest on a beach.
The show blames the land haulouts — and the deaths caused by falling from cliffs — squarely on lack of sea ice due to human-caused climate change. “They’d be on the ice if they could be, but there’s no option but to come to land,” the episode’s producer says. The claim isn’t true. In fact, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined in October 2017 that Pacific walrus have not been harmed by recent sea-ice loss and are not expected to be harmed in the foreseeable future.
Still, the brutal death scenes horrified sensitive viewers while some others shook their heads at the questionable claims. Film producer Sophie Lanfear has defended her inclusion of the sequence as an essential “truth,” although Netflix eventually issued a warning to “animal lovers” that they might want to skip the death sequence.
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But animal lovers and sensitive viewers are the target audience. The sole intention of the footage of walruses falling to a splattery death is to spark outrage, to shock viewers into taking climate change seriously. Lanfear admits as much. “I would like people to think about their lives and the fossil fuels they use in their lives and be inspired to support renewable energies and to try and find solutions to this problem,” she told People magazine. And the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which partnered with Netflix for the series, is now busily promoting walruses as the “new symbol of climate change.”
The tactic is reminiscent of the infamous 2017 stunt when National Geographic magazine publicized a video of an emaciated polar bear, which it falsely blamed on global warming. This kind of disturbing nature film footage has become known as “tragedy porn.” It’s infused with a narrative that misrepresents or glosses over important facts for the sole purpose of manipulating emotionally immature viewers into feeling distressed and angry. And both the starving polar bear and the plummeting walruses count on viewers who are well connected on social media to vent their dismay and spread the climate-change alarm.
But the actual facts of what happened with the walruses would be obvious to anyone who took the time to look at what history and science reveal about the claims.
Along the Russian coast of the Chukchi Sea, records show that walrus land haulouts are a natural phenomenon going back to the 19th century, and have nothing to do with climate change. Recent haulouts are enormous because the total population is enormous.
Pacific walruses appear to have a cyclical “boom and bust” population history. A very large population soon outstrips its food supply, something that last happened with walrus in the 1980s. The starving population then declines dramatically and stays low until the food supply can recover.
Despite the climate change fears, the walrus population is actually booming once again. It may now be as large as 300,000 animals. And polar bear numbers are also up in the Chukchi Sea, according to a survey completed in 2016. Chukchi polar bears are fatter and reproducing better than they were in the 1980s. Ringed and bearded seals are doing better too, which has been attributed to more algae and plankton in the water since 2007. In other words, longer ice-free summers in the Chukchi Sea, along with restricted hunting, have allowed walrus, Arctic seals, and polar bears to thrive.
So much for the producers’ claims that global warming is killing off walruses. However, producers may have done more than get the facts wrong. There are indications that some of the real factors causing the walrus deaths were misleadingly kept from viewers.
Lanfear told Ed Yong at The Atlantic that two locations were used for producing the final film: the cliff location and another beach where more than 100,000 walruses were hauled out. Footage from both locations was spliced together so seamlessly that the action looks to happen at the same place, but that’s an illusion. The walrus action at the cliff appeared to be just around a corner of the huge beach haulout. In fact it was hundreds of kilometres to the west.
A recent forensic comparison of photos by Andrew Montford at the Global Warming Policy Foundation establishes the location where the walruses fell as Cape Kozhevnikov, near the village of Ryrkaipiy in the Russian Far East. Here, the headland of sharp rock falls down to beach level on one side, allowing walruses to climb up a relatively gentle slope to the top when space on the beach gets cramped.
On shore, walruses prefer to huddle close together, even when more space is available. These tightly packed groups are easily startled, and if something like an approaching polar bear, hunter, or aircraft overhead frightens them, a stampede to the safety of the water can be deadly. We know from a report published by the Siberian Times in mid-October 2017 that hundreds of walruses died at Cape Kozhevnikov some time in September, when about 20 polar bears approached the herd hauled out on the beach and the cliff above it. Even at the haulout on the other beach, the one without the cliffs, scores would have died in a stampede simply from being trampled by other walruses, but presumably that’s less cinematic.
Records show that initiating a stampede is a safe and successful way for polar bears to hunt walrus. The walrus that end up killed in the panic become a buffet for bears. One study showed that stampedes initiated by polar bears were responsible for most of the 358 dead walruses found trampled to death at beach haulouts on Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean in the 1990s.
What really made those walruses on Netflix fall to their death from a rocky cliff? Overhead shots in a “behind the scenes” trailer for the “Our Planet” series suggest a drone was used in filming, which could have spooked the walruses into stampeding. The crew also admitted there were polar bears in the area, another possible cause for the deadly stampede. The behind-the-scenes segment also, troublingly, shows how a cameraman on the beach may have potentially discouraged walruses at the top of the cliff from returning the way they had gone up — the safer way down.
And when producers panned their cameras over a scene of carnage below the cliff, they implied all the animals had fallen to their death on that same day. We actually know that most of those animals died days before, when Lanfear’s cameras weren’t around — after being frightened by polar bears.
The walrus the producers caught on film were not displaying unnatural or unusual behaviour. Netflix and the WWF are lying to the public just as National Geographic did when it falsely claimed its video of an emaciated polar bear was “what climate change looks like.” Reading from the same script, Attenborough utters a similar statement when he says of the walruses, “This is the sad reality of climate change.” That is also false.
Dr. Susan Crockford is a University of Victoria zoologist specializing in Holocene mammals, including polar bears and walrus. Her new book is The Polar Bear Catastrophe That Never Happened.