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A female polar bear with her cubs on a floating piece of ice, Svalbard, summer 2018. (Roie Galitz)
Roie Galitz: A female polar bear with her cubs on a floating piece of ice, Svalbard, summer 2018

Award-winning Israeli photographer urges wildlife protection through his lens

Tel Aviv-based Roie Galitz, who is drawn to frozen landscapes, warns that the disappearance of polar bears is the world’s ‘canary in the coalmine’

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Main image by Roie Galitz: A female polar bear with her cubs on a floating piece of ice, Svalbard, summer 2018

As he travels some of the Earth’s northernmost spots, Roie Galitz is racing to capture disappearing landscapes and the animals that live in them, in a bid to make their plight real for people around the world.

Galitz is an award-winning Israeli wildlife photographer and Greenpeace ambassador. In the run-up to the COP 26 Climate Conference which begins in Glasgow, Scotland on October 31, and where United Nations Secretary General António Guterres will try to coax world leaders to take more ambitious steps toward cutting global warming emissions, Galitz spoke about his work on the Times of Israel’s weekly podcast, Times will Tell (edited excerpts appear below) and shared some of his favorite images.

“As an Israeli, based in Tel Aviv,  I’m drawn to the things that are the most different from home,” he says. “I like to go as far as possible. I’d love to go to Mars, but as we can’t go there yet, I love going to the coldest places.”

Among his favorite haunts are Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, the Antarctic and the Kamchatka Peninsula in the Russian Far East.

‘Arctic Romance,’ Svalbard, April 2019. A male polar bear demonstrates his dominance to attract the female. (Roie Galitz)

“I love the ability to tell stories,” he says. “With photography, I can take people on my adventures all over the world. I can take a slice of something that only I witness and save it forever, freezing a fleeting moment for eternity.”

Scouting for food: A female Kamchatka brown bear looks for fish with which to feed her cubs in southern Kamchatka peninsula, Russian Far East, August 2018. (Roie Galitz)

Galitz’s travels to the coldest climes have brought him face to face with some of the more extreme effects of climate change, as the effects of global warming are being seen faster at the north and south poles.

“This is what has brought me into environmental diplomacy,” he says. Before such trips started, he would hear about the climate crisis on the news, like everyone else, but related to it as something far away and not of personal relevance.

“When you go to those places, year after year, you see the immense changes that are happening.”

White ice reflects more of the sun’s energy back into space than dark land and water, he explains. Without sea ice, the Earth will absorb more solar radiation, warming the planet even further.

“Over there you see the glaciers melting, the polar bears starving, an ice-free Arctic, the Northeast Passage opening up.” The passage is a shipping route between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, along the Arctic coasts of Norway and Russia.

‘King of the Beach’ shows a large male walrus guarding his harem in Svalbard fjord. (Roie Galitz)

Some of Galitz’s photographs deal directly with the effects of climate change.

But more often, he zooms in on the daily lives of his subjects, showing them playing, feeding and mating.

Polar bears mating, Svalbard, April 2019. (Roie Galitz)

“It’s one thing to photograph depressing things, but I try to humanize the animals, to make them more relatable, enjoyable and loveable,” he says. “When people care about something and then it’s taken away, they usually care more.”

In ‘Motherhood,’ a Japanese snow monkey and her infant relax in the warm, thermal, Jigokudani pools in Nagano, Japan, February 2019. (Roie Galitz)
In ‘Serengeti Sunset,’ a female cheetah and her four young cubs watch the sun going down in the southern Serengeti, Tanzania, March 2017. (Roie Galitz)

In the explanations for his photos, and the many talks he gives, including one at a TED convention in Glasgow two years ago, Galitz connects his images to the effect of humanity’s actions on what he calls the “relay race of life,” during which all living things strive to pass the “genetic baton” from one generation to the next, to keep the species going.

One of his photographs, depicting a young lioness eating the corpse of an old female elephant that died of natural causes, symbolizes for him the neverending cycle of life. Earlier this month, it won him a high commendation at the prestigious Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards at the Natural History Museum in London.

‘Last Embrace,’ highly commended by the judges of Wildlife Photography of the Year 2021, at London’s Natural History Museum. A young lioness will gain strength by eating the remains of an old female elephant that died of natural causes, Tarangire National Park, Tanzania, March 2019. (Roie Galitz)

Galitz particularly loves bears, which he says are super-intelligent, along with all the big mammals, many of which are apex predators.

“We’ve seen all over the world that when you remove the apex predators or any keystone species from the environment, the entire ecosystem can collapse.”

‘Photograbear,’ taken in Svalbard in summer 2018, shows a large male polar bear that chased Galitz away so that he could take a peak through the lens. (Roie Galitz)

Asked why people should care about the extinction of polar bears thousands of miles away, he answers that they are apex predators and keystone species — creatures that help define an entire ecosystem — and that if they are removed, the whole chain of life is affected. Countries such as Iceland and the United Kingdom will feel the impact, he says, because with more seals in the oceans, there will be less fish.

On a global scale, he says, polar bears are like “the canary in our coal mine,” warning us of the many consequences of massive ice melt, such as rising sea levels, that will endanger millions of people around the world.

Kamchatka brown bear with a sockeye salmon in its mouth, southern Kamchatka peninsula, Russian Far East, August 2017. (Roie Galitz)

Galitz says that if he wasn’t optimistic that the crisis could still be brought under control, he would not be doing what he does.

“There are a lot of things we can do about it. We are just trying, as we did with the [COVID-19] pandemic, to flatten the curve. We would hope that future generations will know how to fix our mess better than we have.”

‘Summer rest’ in Svalbard, during the particularly warm summer of 2017, when the polar bears rested as much as possible to conserve their energy until the ice returned. (Roie Galitz)

 

‘Polar Night’ features the large male polar bear which looked through Galitz’s camera lens (above) walking across a frozen fjord in Svalbard at around midnight looking for seals’ breathing holes, summer 2018. (Roie Galitz)
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