Losing the Polar Bear Battle

by Lucy Hagger

Polar bears can be legally hunted in Canada for their fur, fangs and other body parts. This is the only country where this hunting is legal but the US put forward the proposal at this year’s CITES conference to ban this hunting altogether.

Polar bears currently fall into CITES appendix 1 which means legal hunting of these animals is allowed with strict monitoring and regulation. The proposal aimed to bump the polar bears up to appendix 2 which would make hunting of polar bears completely illegal.

This is not the first time that this proposal has been considered, but no success has been seen. There were hopes that the ban would get passed at the CITES conference, but this was not to be. 2/3 of the parties were needed to vote in favour of this proposal for it to be passed. Unfortunately, this was not even nearly reached. 38 voted in favour, but 42 voted against (48 abstained from the vote).

This result served for much disappointment for many nations including the US, Russia and the UK. However, with many important nations like China and Vietnam importing these products from Canada the number of opponents added up.

Canada was also strongly opposed to the proposal as the polar bear market provides the native Inuit people with a stable income. With roughly 600 polar bears being hunted and sold each year at a price of $5000 at auction, it is clear that they are a crucial income source for many Inuit people.

Depressing Future For Polar Bears

Polar bears have become a bit of a poster child for species affected by climate change. This is in part due to their popularity in modern culture and the visibly huge effects climate change is having on their habitat. So it does seem rather counter intuitive that there is legal hunting of this already vulnerable species.

The arctic habitat that these polar bears inhabit has decreased by nearly 20% since 1980 and this decrease is set to accelerate in the future. It is predicted that if we do not get a hold of our CO2 emissions by 2060, the ice caps will be committed to melting. That means no habitat for the polar bears at all.

Regulated Hunting

Terry Audla, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, argued that their hunting methods are sustainable and that they “hunt for subsistence”. He explains that the polar bears are needed to make money and put food on the table. Cows, chickens and pigs etc are not available to them; they are working with what they have.

This point is fair, however, there is no doubt that the hunting is having detrimental effects on the polar bear populations. Although this hunting has not been a huge problem in the past, it is likely that the combined effect of climate change and hunting in the future will only drive the polar bear populations down further.

My concern is that as the populations inevitably fall and therefore prices of polar bear products increase in price, we will have a situation very similar to that currently seen in the rhino horn trade. I have already written a post relating to these issues so I won’t delve into the details but you can find it here.

I feel that this may be another case of the powers of the world continuing to act in a reactive manner rather than a proactive manner. Yes, right now, the effects of polar bear hunting aren’t having a hugely dramatic effect, but we will not be able to say the same in the near future. Will it then be too late?

If you have any opinions on this or the rhino post, please share.. I’d love to hear what other people’s thoughts are..