Over the weekend, social media and the newspapers were full of stories of Pacific walruses plunging over sea cliffs to their deaths. Heart-wrenching film of the corpses of these magnificent beasts piled up on the shore have been driving many to tears.
This all came about as the result of the latest episode of Our Planet, the new wildlife extravaganza from Netflix. As is normal for such programmes, the story that accompanies the animal eye-candy is told by Sir David Attenborough and, as is positively compulsory, it is spiced with multiple references to the horrors of global warming. In fact, we are told, it is us who should shoulder the blame for the slaughter of the walruses, because shrinking sea ice caused by climate change forces them to haulout – leaving the water to take refuge on the shore instead.
The programme ends with Attenborough directing viewers to a website run by WWF, the co-producers of the series. It is therefore, in essence, an eight-part, multi-million pound fundraiser.
Which is a pity, because there is now considerable evidence emerging that the story is not quite what it seems.
For a start, as the zoologist Susan Crockford has documented for the GWPF, walrus haul out behaviour may not be related to global warming. In her 2014 paper On the Beach, she cites examples as far back as the 1930s, long before global warming. She also explains that there doesn't appear to be a strong correlation between sea-ice levels and haulout behaviour.
Nor is the phenomenon of walruses falling to their deaths from sea cliffs new. American TV recorded the same phenomenon in 1994 and the New York Times reported 60 deaths in a single incident in 1996. Attempts were made to install a fence at one site, while another employs rangers whose sole job is to keep the walruses away from the cliffs. At the time, scientists explained that the most likely explanation was overcrowding at the water’s edge.
Crockford thinks that the footage on the Netflix show comes from a well-documented incident that took place in the village of Ryrkaypiy, in eastern Siberia, in October 2017. September and October are the peak period for walrus haulouts, and there are numerous examples, which date back to the 1960s, of the cliff phenomenon taking place on Wrangel Island, a few hundred kilometres to the north.
However in 2017, as the Siberian Times reported, the colony attracted polar bears that frequent – and indeed at the time terrorise – the area. The bears drove several hundred walruses over the cliffs to their deaths, before feasting on the corpses. They continued to frequent the area right through into the winter.
I’ve been able to show that Crockford’s supposition about the geographical origin of the footage is correct: analysis of the rock shapes in the film and in a photo taken by the producer/director both match archive photos of Ryrkaypiy. The photo was taken on 19 September 2017, during the events described by the Siberian Times.
But whereas the Siberian Times and Gizmodo website, which also reported on the 2017 incident, were both quite clear that the walruses were driven over the cliffs by polar bears, Netflix makes no mention of their presence. Similarly, there is no mention of the fact that walrus haulouts are entirely normal. Instead, Attenborough tells his viewers that climate change is forcing the walruses on shore, where their poor eyesight leads them to plunge over the cliffs.
This is all very troubling as it raises the possibility that Netflix and the WWF are, innocently or otherwise, party to a deception of the public. Exactly who was aware of the presence of polar bears remains unclear, but it seems doubtful that no one at the WWF and the production team was unaware. And given that one of the prime objectives of the show seems to have been to raise funds for WWF, that seems... problematic.
Andrew Montford is deputy director of the Global Warming Policy Forum