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Dr. Cristián Samper

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Mitik's Fight to Survive

Posted: 10/23/2012 3:47 pm

A Pacific walrus calf, orphaned and rescued in Arctic waters, arrived at the Wildlife Conservation Society's New York Aquarium last week determined to live and beat his odds. The world fell big for the calf, who is named Mitik. His story ranked first on The New York Times Metro section's most-emailed list for a solid week. We even heard from Australians pulling for Mitik as he found his new home in our Coney Island aquarium.

Mitik was found by fishermen off the coast of Barrow, Alaska. He was alone and very sick. Our staff and others at the Alaska SeaLife Center helped nurse Mitik back from a certain death. Still, today he struggles to fight off a bladder infection. His playful pictures, which went viral around the world, are deceiving. Our animal care staff and veterinarians keep watch over him 24/7. While we celebrate his arrival in Brooklyn, we remain concerned.

With bottle feedings every four hours, he gains weight. He is active with our keepers. We await good news with every report from our veterinarians.

The WCS aquarium was chosen by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help Mitik with his fight because of our expertise in animal welfare and care. We will keep all of Mitik's fans updated on his progress.

Mitik's case is also an opportunity for WCS to discuss the significant conservation challenges facing walruses and other Arctic wildlife. While polar bears get much of the attention regarding the effects of warmer temperatures on Arctic sea ice, other iconic species, likewise, are feeling the heat.

Pacific walruses rest on floating platforms of ice between dives to the sea bottom for crustaceans, gastropods, and other invertebrates. As the summer ice disappears at unprecedented levels, floes increasingly occur only over deep waters of the Arctic basin, far from land.

It has now become difficult, and in some cases impossible, for walruses -- particularly females and their calves during summer -- to use sea ice as a resting platform between diving forays.

Even the majority of walruses who make it to shore face growing risks. Walruses frequently gather into groups numbering into the tens and hundreds of thousands. Large herds of walruses strain local food resources that would otherwise be available over wider areas on their drifting ice habitats.

At the same time, walruses can be skittish animals on land. Shore-based walrus aggregations can be quick to stampede into the ocean, resulting in injured and crushed walruses, particularly calves.

For walruses and other marine mammals, melting ice has other impacts. As sea lanes open up and offshore drilling increases, a surge in fossil fuel extraction (along with ocean-going tankers and support vessels) is a concern for these populations and their important Arctic habitats.

In the case of increased risk from potential oil spills, the necessary technology and on-site capacity required to respond to disasters remain negligible in these remote trans-boundary areas. Such an event could present a risk to all Arctic inhabitants, including the Alaska and Chukotka (Russian Federation) native communities.

Clearly, protective measures for Arctic marine wildlife and indigenous communities must be put in place as the effects of climate change and development become more pronounced. At recent workshops held in Alaska, groups including the Eskimo Walrus Commission engaged with agencies such as the U.S. Coast Guard and the Marine Mammal Commission to discuss new pressures facing walruses and other marine mammals.

WCS staff and our partners are working in the Arctic developing the science needed to minimize the loss of walruses and other wildlife in this rapidly changing environment. Our hope is that one day we can report that we are beating the odds for both walrus in the wild and for Mitik recovering at our aquarium.

 
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