We could all learn a lesson from this baby bear: Look up & don’t give up. pic.twitter.com/nm0McSYeqY
— IM🍑HIM (@ziyatong) November 3, 2018
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.)
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 of 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.
Professional wildlife filmmakers have also turned to drones, using them to capture shots of frolicking river dolphins in Planet Earth II and Galápagos 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 homemade Planet Earth video,” says Lamb.
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