A video published over the weekend of a bear cub and its mother struggling to climb a snowy mountain slope garnered millions of views and shares for what appeared to be a message about the cub’s perseverance. But a closer look reveals the dangers that shooting footage like this can bring to wildlife.
The clip, which was taken by an unidentified videographer in the Magadan Region of Russia in June of 2018, shows a bear cub and its mother attempting to climb a steep slope. The mother and cub slip and fall as they make their way up, but the cub has a tougher time, gripping on and continuing to climb and fall repeatedly.
When it makes it steps away from reconnecting with its mother at the top of the slope, the mother bear appears to swipe towards the cub before it slips even further back down. After climbing back up, yet again, it eventually makes its way safely to the top.
The swipe is one of the signs that has signaled wildlife photographers, researchers and ecologists to raise awareness of the dangers capturing this video presented to the animals with its speculated use of drone photography.
“The mother swats at the cub, which I interpreted as trying to move away from (the) trajectory of the drone as it’s about to approach,” grizzly bear researcher Clayton Lamb told the Toronto Star.
For photographer Elisabeth Brentano, who has worked on conservation projects with wildlife organizations in locations like Namibia and South Africa, the footage is a prime example of mishandled wildlife videography and a wake-up call that capturing viral content should not be more important than ensuring the welfare of animals.
“This was clearly shot on a drone… you can tell from the way the camera tilts down at the 0:33 mark and from the way it zooms and tilts right before the cub tumbles down the mountain at the 1:19 mark,” Brentano told Travel + Leisure. “It’s pretty clear to me that the mother bear is distracted, undoubtedly from the buzzing and proximity of the drone as she stares straight at the camera on multiple occasions,” she added.
Lamb also told the Toronto Star that, in his expert opinion, a female grizzly bear wouldn’t take a cub that is so young on such a steep slope. Brentano stated the same concern.
“I have to question how the two even got to this location in the first place; did the drone chase them here, too?” Brentano said. “It’s a rather precarious spot for a mother and her cub to be crossing and both seem uneasy," she added, pointing to the way the bears run off at the end of the footage with the mother bear glazing over her shoulder as a further indication of the disruption the drone appears to be causing.
ViralHog, the Youtube account that posted the video, told The Verge the footage "does appear to be a drone video," though representatives later told T+L they could not comment on the use of a drone at this time.
Television producer Ziya Tong, who also posted the video that ended up being highly shared on Twitter, later shared a code of best practices for filming wildlife with drones from the "Current Biology" scientific journal.
Guidelines include using quiet drones and high-quality sensors that allow shooting from far distances, creating launch and discovery locations out of the animal’s eyesight and compliance with civil aviation regulations.
While drones can be used towards remarkable feats in wildlife observation and conservation, they can also become a danger when used incorrectly.
“Imagine how many millions of people have seen this by now, some of whom might be tempted to try something similar?” Brentano said. “We need to educate ourselves, but also ask what we’re trying to accomplish when we do film or share something.”