11:32 am - Monday May 28, 2012

Dramatic Footage of Walruses Highlights Threats From Climate Change

The retreating sea ice of the Alaskan and Russian Arctic is forcing walruses ashore, with deadly consequences for calves. Our WWF team in Alaska has obtained high definition footage along the arctic shorelines showing the dramatic impact climate change is having on walruses.

In recent years, as arctic sea ice has receded far from the Russian and Alaskan coasts, walruses – including many females and their calves – have been forced to take refuge on land, congregating in large numbers at “haul outs” along the coasts. These mass congregations can lead to violent stampedes, which, as shown by the Icy Cape situation, are particularly dangerous to young walrus calves. Scientists also report a recent rise in the number of calves that have drowned at sea after becoming separated from their mothers.

walrusAn investigative team led by the US Fish and Wildlife Service issued preliminary footage explaining the mass death of young walrus calves captured on the WWF footage. The footage shows more than 100 walrus carcasses that were spotted on September 14 by US Geological Survey researchers flying near Icy Cape, southwest of Barrow, Alaska.

Days prior to that sighting, a massive herd of walruses was seen congregated on the shore. According to the preliminary report released by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which included USGS, the Alaska SeaLife Centre and the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management, a total of 131 carcasses, mostly calves and yearlings, were found. Their conclusion was that “the cause of death was consistent with trampling by other walruses”.

“It is clear: were it not for the dramatic decline in the sea ice, the young walruses at Icy Cape most likely would be alive on the ice and not dead on the beach,” said Geoff York, the WWF Arctic Programme’s polar bear conservation coordinator and lead WWF species biologist. Last month, York observed an estimated 20,000 walruses congregated on the shore of Russia’s Cape Schmidt, along the coast of Russias Chukchi Peninsula on the Northeast Passage expedition, which was supported by WWF and others.

“As the sea ice retreats further out into the deep artic ocean, walruses are unable to find food and are thereby coming ashore in large numbers and in places they hadn’t been before, says York. “Once on shore, the walruses are limited in how far out they can forage, especially females and young. If 20,000 walruses are all trying to find something to eat in one area, it won’t be long before the food runs out.”

York noted that large concentrations of walruses on land can also attract polar bears and lead to increased human-bear conflict. WWF is working with local communities along the arctic coast to mitigate such conflicts and share information with communities on how to deal with the significantly increasing numbers of walruses and polar bears on land.

These alarming conditions do not just raise concerns about the fate of iconic species such as walruses and polar bears – our own future is at stake. The planet is changing in dangerous and unpredictable ways and the longer we wait to address the climate crisis the costlier it will be.

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