Mass walrus death highlights climate change threat

WWF has obtained dramatic, high definition footage showing the dramatic impact climate change is having on walruses along the Arctic shorelines of Russia and Alaska.

The Alaska footage shows some of the more than 100 walrus carcasses spotted on September 14 by US Geological Survey (USGS) researchers flying near Icy Cape, southwest of Barrow, Alaska. In the days prior to that sighting, a massive herd of walruses were witnessed congregating on the shore. According to the preliminary report released last night by the US Fish and Wildlife Service team, which included USGS, the Alaska SeaLife Center and the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management, a total of 131 carcasses, mostly calves and yearlings, have been found in the area. Their conclusion was that “the cause of death was consistent with trampling by other walruses.”

The longer we wait to address the climate crisis, the greater the cost will be
Geoff York, WWF’s lead Arctic species biologist

“With the rapid melting of Arctic sea ice due to climate change, walruses are losing their habitats and are being forced to congregate on land in massive numbers, often in the thousands” said Geoff York, WWF’s lead Arctic species biologist. “This is a very dangerous situation as it can lead to stampedes and the trampling of walruses. As is evidenced by the Icy Cape situation, young walruses are particularly vulnerable.”

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 is evidenced from the Icy Cape situation, are particularly dangerous to young walrus calves. Scientists also report a recent rise in the number of orphaned calves at sea after becoming separated from their mothers.

“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 a beach,” said York.

Just last month, York also observed an estimated 20,000 walruses congregated on the shore of Russia’s Cape Schmidt during the “Northeast Passage” expedition, which was supported by WWF and others. [Note: WWF footage from Cape Schmidt includes a walrus stampede.] “As the sea ice retreats further out into the deep Arctic Ocean, walruses are unable to find food and are therefore coming ashore in huge numbers and in places they hadn’t been before,” York said. “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 across 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,” says York. “The planet is changing in dangerous and unpredictable ways and the longer we wait to address the climate crisis, the greater the cost will be.”

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