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The Problem Behind a Viral Video of a Persistent Baby Bear

The Atlantic logo The Atlantic 7/11/2018 Ed Yong

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For many people, a two-and-a-half minute video of a baby brown bear trying to scale a snow-covered mountain was a life-affirming testament to the power of persistence. As it begins, the cub is standing with its mother on the side of a perilously steep ridge. The mother begins walking across, and despite slipping a few times on the loose snow, she soon reaches the top. Her cub, following tentatively after her, isn’t so fortunate. It loses its footing and slides by several feet. It pulls itself together and reattempts the ascent, before slipping again.

a brown bear sitting on a rock © Fabian Bimmer / Reuters

Finally, the cub nears the top. But as the footage zooms in to focus on the moment of reunion, the mother inexplicably swipes at the youngster with her paw, sending it hurtling downward again. It slides a long way, scrabbling for purchase and finding some just before it hits a patch of bare rock. Once again, it starts to climb, and after what seems like a nail-biting eternity for anyone watching, it reaches its mother. The two walk away.

The video was uploaded to the ViralHog YouTube channel on Friday, and after being shared on Twitter, it rapidly went viral. At the time of writing, it has been watched 17 million times. The cub’s exploits were equal parts GIF, nature documentary, and motivational poster. It had all the elements of an incredible story: the most adorable of protagonists, rising and falling action (literally), and a happy ending. It was a tale of tenacity in the face of adversity, triumph against the odds.

But when biologists started watching the video, they saw a very different story.  

The video, they say, was clearly captured by a drone. And in it, they saw the work of an irresponsible drone operator who, in trying to film the bears, drove them into a dangerous situation that almost cost the cub its life. “I found it really hard to watch,” says Sophie Gilbert, an ecologist at the University of Idaho who studies, among other things, how drones affect wildlife. “It showed a pretty stark lack of understanding from the drone operator of the effects that his actions were having on the bears.” (It wasn’t just scientists, either; several drone pilots were also dismayed by the footage.)

Screengrab from the viral video © Twitter Screengrab from the viral video

The only information accompanying the video says that it was captured on June 19, 2018 in the Magadan region of Russia. No one knows who shot it, which drone was used, or how close it flew. But “it doesn’t matter how far away it was, because I can tell from the bears’ behavior that it was too close,” says Clayton Lamb from the University of Alberta, who studies grizzly bears in the Canadian Rockies and uses drones to map the area where they live.

The setting of the video is already suspicious, Lamb says. With a cub that small and vulnerable, it’s very unlikely that a mother bear would opt to traverse such a steep and slippery slope. “There’s no reason a female would normally accept that risk, unless they were forced into it,” Lamb says. Throughout the video, he notes, the mother is constantly looking up at the drone and clearly bothered by its presence. At some point, the footage zooms in, probably because the drone itself was swooping closer. That, Lamb says, explains why the mother unexpectedly swats at the cub, causing it to fall. She probably read the drone’s approach as a kind of attack, and was trying to push her cub away.

She may, as some biologists have suggested, have parsed it as an eagle (and indeed, the shadow of a bird of prey can be seen in the video). But Lamb suspects that her concern was more straightforward: A strange, loud object was closing in. “Many people think that drones are silent, like a soaring bird or a paper airplane,” he says, but at close range, they can be very loud.

Screengrab from the viral video © Twitter Screengrab from the viral video

Professional wildlife film-makers have also turned to drones, using them to captured shots of frolicking river dolphins in Planet Earth II and Galapagos sea lions hunting yellowfin tuna in Blue Planet II. But documentary crews often include naturalists who are sensitive to the behaviors of their subjects. “As we get tech that allows the common user to gather those shots, people who aren’t professionals can misuse it to get a home-made Planet Earth video,” says Lamb.

Drones are still new enough that the regulations governing their use are piecemeal. In the U.S., the National Park System had banned drones within its lands. Several states prohibit hunters from using the devices to scout their targets. At the national level, the Federal Aviation Administration has rules for operating drones, but these were written to protect humans and aircraft, not animals.

By harassing animals, drones can chase them into dangerous positions, as was the case with the bear cub. They can interrupt hunts, cause high levels of stress, chase animals over long distances, and drive them away from sources of food or parts of the landscape they depend upon. There are enough such instances on YouTube that Gilbert has created a lengthy playlist. “It’s staggering all the misuses that people are proudly posting because they don’t know any better,” she says. “There’s no education right now. Nobody’s even trying to talk to folks about it.”

Screengrab from the viral video © Twitter Screengrab from the viral video

That’s a shame, she says, because drones have also been a godsend for biologists who want to study creatures that are otherwise hard to reach. Drones are more convenient than on-the-ground surveys, and cheaper, safer, and quieter than planes. Researchers have used them to count birds nesting on inaccessible cliff edges, monitor leopard seals in Antarctica and sea turtles in Costa Rica, survey orangutans by looking for their treetop nests, and collect whale DNA by flying through the exhalations from their blowholes. Drone-based counts can be more accurate than on-the-ground surveys, and are often less intrusive. “To survey nesting birds, we’d have to climb trees and count chicks, which can be really disturbing,” says Gilbert. “If you have a nice camera, you can zoom in from a distance.”

One of her students is using infrared-equipped drones to monitor the nighttime movements of deer, to see if measures meant to deter them from agricultural fields are working. Another team member, who studies rabbit-like pikas, has mounted a laser-based radar system on a drone to create a centimeter-scale map of the area where these creatures live. Meanwhile, in Kenya and Malawi, the World Wildlife Fund has strapped thermal cameras onto drones to foil poachers operating by night.

But amid these exciting uses, only a few dozen studies have assessed how animals react to drones. Those reactions vary considerably depending on the species in question, how quickly the drone approaches, the path of its flight, whether it’s shaped like a predator, and more. And even when animals aren’t visibly bothered, they could still be distressed: In one study, black bears that had been fitted with cardiac monitors had dramatically raised heart rates as drones flew overhead.

Screengrab from the viral video © Twitter Screengrab from the viral video

Given the uncertainties, two groups of researchers have compiled guidelinesfor using drones. Both emphasize precaution in cases where it’s unclear how a given species will react. “First, do no harm,” write Jarrod Hodgson and Lian Pin Koh in an op-ed.

Meanwhile, Gilbert wants researchers to more thoroughly study how drones affect different species. “We can strategically think about which animals are going to be most impacted by drones and focus our research there,” she says. That includes “charismatic megafauna that people will target as recreational users, animals with natural aerial predators, or animals that use sound to detect predators.” Such studies can serve as the basis of not only guidelines for scientists, but regulations that promote more thoughtful drone use more broadly.

In the meantime, hopefully common sense and empathy will prevail. “When you have a struggling cub, I think the responsible thing to do is to back your drone away,” Gilbert says.

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