Bid to Restrict Polar Bear Trade Fails

Stretched thin? Opponents to polar bear hunting argue that trade in their skins is a threated to the endangered species.

Kim Hansen/Wikimedia Commons

Polar bears are a hot commodity. With demand from collectors in Russia and China on the rise, their skins often fetch $5000 at auction. The asking prices for mounted trophies are even higher. These dollar figures worry conservationists, who had hoped to convince an international convention to restrict trade in polar bear parts. But they lost today when delegates to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) meeting in Bangkok voted down the motion. "We are obviously disappointed," said David Hayes in statement. Hayes is deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, which had proposed the heightened protection.

Polar bears are in danger of extinction because their habitat is melting. Summer sea ice has shrunk by 15% to 20% over the past 3 decades, and another half of what's left could vanish by the end of the century. Other threats include hunting, pollution, and collisions with ships. Roughly 800 polars bears are killed each year, most hunted for their meat. Over the last decade, skins and other body parts were exported primarily from Canada, where Inuit have annual quotas for their hunt. Scientists estimate that between 20,000 and 25,000 polar bears remain in five countries: Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Norway, Russia, and the United States. Some populations are stable or increasing, but the total number is thought to be decreasing.

CITES offers several levels of protection. Polar bears are listed on Appendix II, which means that countries that export body parts must vouch that the animals were legally killed and that the deaths will not harm the survival of the species. Appendix I is stricter: It outlaws commercial trade in the species, while still allowing sport hunting under certain conditions. The United States and Russia, which both already ban sales within their borders, proposed to shift polar bears from Appendix II to I, or "up-list" them, arguing that the species is in danger of extinction and "affected by trade." They were backed by several conservation organizations, such as the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

The other three countries that have polar bears—Canada, Greenland, and Norway—opposed the additional protection. The Canadian delegation argued that polar bears did not meet the criteria for Appendix I because the extent of trade (2% of the Canadian population) does not endanger the species. Worse, banning the trade could boost the price of trophies and perhaps lead to illegal hunting, the chief delegate Basile van Havre of the Canadian Wildlife Service pointed out in a presentation to the European Union in December. He argued that what's needed for polar bear conservation is to boost research, address all threats such as pollution, and have the five key nations create a coordinated management plan. The World Wildlife Fund also did not support the change in listing.

Today, the motion failed with 38 votes for, 42 against, and 46 abstentions. "We won the round, but this fight is not over," declared Terry Audla, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, Canada's national organization of Inuit that opposes a trade ban, in a statement. There is a small chance that the motion could come up for another vote on technical grounds. "We're incredibly disappointed by this shortsighted decision," said Sarah Uhlemann, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity in a statement. Like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the center agues that reducing commercial trade would lessen the pressure on polar bears.