Every movement needs symbols and icons that unite campaigners behind a common goal. And the movement to protect the environment is no different.
This week, David Attenborough’s new Netflix documentary Our Planet has created another of these symbols: a walrus falling off a cliff, a behaviour the animal has learned in response to the pressures of climate change.
The devastating footage has sparked a wave of social media posts demanding because human impact on the environment is having such a horrifying impact on the natural world and the animals that live in it.
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“Viewers tune in to these programmes to see beautifully-shot images of our precious planet and its amazing wildlife,” Emma Priestland, Friends of the Earth’s plastic campaigner, told Global Citizen.
“So when they are confronted with shocking images of the devastating impact that our throwaway lifestyles can have on our marine environment and the animals that live there, it’s little wonder so many are now demanding action,” she added.
Tragically, it’s often images of animals’ pain and suffering that spark the biggest reaction from viewers — but it’s also these images that are making people pay attention to the changes that they can make in their own lives and call for action from world leaders.
According to Priestland, programmes like Our Planet “have played a crucial role” in raising awareness among the public about environmental damage.
She said: “We now need to ensure that the concern that so many people feel on this issue is turned into comprehensive action from governments and businesses around the world.”
These are five of the most iconic animals affected by climate change whose suffering has inspired action.
1. The Our Planet walruses
David Attenborough’s new documentary series, Our Planet, has sparked a social media storm of viewers left devastated by a scene featuring a walrus falling from the top of a cliff. In the Netflix series’ second episode "Frozen Worlds," the team explores the effects climate change on arctic wildlife.
The show doesn’t hold back in attributing the fate of a large group of walruses in northeast Russia walruses to climate change.
The group of more than 100,000 walruses are forced to gather on the beach “out of desperation” — because their sea ice habitat has moved to the north, pushing them to seek solid land instead — according to Attenborough. Once on land, the walruses climb up an 80 metre cliff looking for a “space of rest.”
“A walrus’ eyesight out of water is poor, but they can sense the others down below,” says Attenborough, in the show. “As they get hungry, they need to return to the sea. In their desperation to do so, hundreds fall from heights they should never have scaled.”
The episode's producer, Sophie Lanfear, told People: “We were surrounded by lots of dead walruses every day. I don’t think I’ve ever been around that many dead bodies. It was traumatic.”
“We all need to pay attention and think about how we consume energy,” Lanfear added. “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.”
2. The Blue Planet II whale
The shock sparked among viewers by the already infamous walrus scene is reminiscent of the mother pilot whale grieving her dead newborn, that featured in the fourth episode of Blue Planet II in November 2017.
Viewers were horrified to watch the mother carrying her calf’s dead body with her for days, unable to let it go.
Attenborough, who also narrated the series, told viewers that the calf “may have been poisoned by the mother’s own contaminated milk” — a result of plastic and pollution in the sea.
“Unless the flow of plastics and industrial pollution into the ocean is reduced, marine life will be poisoned by them for many centuries to come,” he said. “The creatures that live in the 'big blue' are perhaps more remote than any other animal. But not remote enough to escape the effects of what we are doing to their world.”
The scene left many viewers pledging never to use plastic again, and is widely accepted as having played a key part in sparking the ongoing global movement against plastic pollution.
As just one example, Waitrose supermarket found in its 2018 annual report that 88% of their customers who watched Blue Planet II have since changed their behaviour, with half saying they had “drastically changed” their behaviour.
“The fact that one particular moment rang a bell in the minds and consciousnesses across the country pleases us more than I can say,” Attenborough said while accepting a Bafta for the episode in May 2018.
3. The starving polar bear
My entire @Sea_Legacy team was pushing through their tears and emotions while documenting this dying polar bear. It’s a soul-crushing scene that still haunts me, but I know we need to share both the beautiful and the heartbreaking if we are going to break down the walls of apathy. This is what starvation looks like. The muscles atrophy. No energy. It’s a slow, painful death. When scientists say polar bears will be extinct in the next 100 years, I think of the global population of 25,000 bears dying in this manner. There is no band aid solution. There was no saving this individual bear. People think that we can put platforms in the ocean or we can feed the odd starving bear. The simple truth is this—if the Earth continues to warm, we will lose bears and entire polar ecosystems. This large male bear was not old, and he certainly died within hours or days of this moment. But there are solutions. We must reduce our carbon footprint, eat the right food, stop cutting down our forests, and begin putting the Earth—our home—first. Please join us at @sea_legacy as we search for and implement solutions for the oceans and the animals that rely on them—including us humans. Thank you your support in keeping my @sea_legacy team in the field. With @CristinaMittermeier #turningthetide with @Sea_Legacy #bethechange #nature #naturelovers This video is exclusively managed by Caters News. To license or use in a commercial player please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call +44 121 616 1100 / +1 646 380 1615”
In December 2017, a video of a starving polar bear went viral, with millions of people watching it over just a few days.
The harrowing clip was captured in Canada’s Baffin Islands, by National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen, who predicted that the bear featured would probably be dead within days or even hours of when he shot the footage.
“This polar bear is starving,” explained National Geographic, in an article responding to questions the company received from people who’d seen the video.
“The bear’s thin frame and protruding bones are clear indicators of this, and its atrophied muscles suggest it’s been starving for an extended period of time,” the company added.
According to National Geographic, the polar bear populations that are most at risk of decline are those living in areas that have seasonal ice — which means that it melts completely in the summer and returns again in autumn as the weather cools.
When the seasonal ice melts during the summer, polar bears living in the region survive on their stored fat.
But, warming global temperatures mean the seasonal ice is melted for a longer period of time — and polar bears have to live on their fat reserves for longer and longer.
4. The seahorse with a cotton bud
It’s a photo that I wish didn’t exist but now that it does I want everyone to see it. What started as an opportunity to photograph a cute little sea horse turned into one of frustration and sadness as the incoming tide brought with it countless pieces of trash and sewage. This sea horse drifts long with the trash day in and day out as it rides the currents that flow along the Indonesian archipelago. This photo serves as an allegory for the current and future state of our oceans. What sort of future are we creating? How can your actions shape our planet? . thanks to @eyosexpeditions for getting me there and to @nhm_wpy and @sea_legacy for getting this photo in front of as many eyes as possible. Go to @sea_legacy to see how you can make a difference. . #plastic #seahorse #wpy53 #wildlifephotography #conservation @nhm_wpy @noaadebris #switchthestick
Another National Geographic photographer, Justin Hofman, captured an image that also really highlighted the significant impact that plastic pollution is having on marine wildlife.
The photograph, taken near the town of Sumbawa Besar, in Borneo, shows a seahorse floating with its tail tightly wrapped around a cotton bud.
Seahorses often hold floating objects with their tails, according to National Geographic, to help them navigate ocean currents. But this particular shot highlighted how far reaching plastic pollution is in the ocean.
“It’s a photo that I wish didn’t exist but now that it does I want everyone to see it,” Hofman wrote on Instagram.
“What started as an opportunity to photograph a cute little sea horse turned into one of frustration and sadness as the incoming tide brought with it countless pieces of trash and sewage,” he added. “This photo serves as an allegory for the current and future state of our oceans.”
5. Rang-tan and palm oil
Although technically not a real orangutan, the character Rang-tan hit headlines after the animated creature was featured in a short film released by Greenpeace, and used by supermarket Iceland as part of its Christmas ad campaign.
The film, voiced by Emma Thompson, was created to raise awareness about deforestation caused through the production of palm oil products.
The 90-second film tells the story of a baby orangutan, called Rang-tan, who moves into a little girl’s room because its own habitat has been destroyed.
And, while the character is fictional, the story is very real — with orangutans threatened daily by the destruction of their rainforest habitats.
“Rang-tan represents the 25 orangutans we lose every day to the destruction of the rainforest for palm oil,” said Greenpeace in a blogpost. “Rang-tan may be fictional, but her story is happening, right now.”
Greenpeace has also released separate footage of a real life baby orangutan found crying and separated from its mother, on a palm oil plantation in Borneo — highlighting that her situation mirrored that of the fictional Rang-tan.
It said: “The impact of deforestation for palm oil has on the natural world is beyond devastating, leading in this instance to the separation of mother and baby for an ingredient in something simple, like a biscuit, shampoo, or a bar of chocolate."