Polar Bears: They Lose, We Lose

Ursus maritimus. (Scott Schliebe/USFWS)
Ursus maritimus. (Scott Schliebe/USFWS)

News outlets are reporting the failure of a U.S.-proposed plan to outlaw the export of polar bear parts at the annual meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) this week in Bangkok. Canada is the only nation that allows the export of polar bear skins, teeth and paws, and vehemently opposed the measure. Russia strongly backed the U.S.’s proposal. Demark (Greenland) and Norway, the other two Arctic nations where polar bears live, opposed it.

Most sentient humans believe that Arctic sea ice, on which polar bears depend for hunting its pinniped prey, is disappearing due to climate change, threatening the bears’ survival.  The delegates and conservation groups at the CITES meeting, however, could not agree on much else. Canada, Inuit groups and the World Wildlife Federation (WWF) argued that subsistence hunting by Native peoples is sustainable, regulated and necessary for survival. The export of bear skins and teeth provides income.

The U.S., Russia, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) argued that scientifically verified climate change is already threatening the bears. At the current rate of Arctic warming and food availability, two-thirds of the 20,000-25,000 existing polar bears would be extinct by 2050. (In related news, scientists predict that commercial ships will be sailing blithely over the North Pole by 2050—as long as there are no polar bears in the way, maybe?)

Polar bear skins drying outside in Ittoqqortoormiit (Scoresby Sund), Greenland. (Hannes Grobe)
Polar bear skins drying outside in Ittoqqortoormiit (Scoresby Sund), Greenland. (Hannes Grobe)

About 600 polar bears are killed by hunters every year in Canada—some by Native people, some by trophy hunters. The exported pelts and bone are bought by foreign collectors.

It’s the unnecessary killing of bears that is the problem. Couldn’t the bear hunt be limited to subsistence kills and tightly regulated, similar to the indigenous whale hunting among Native peoples from the Pacific Northwest to the Arctic? The decrease in skins and bone on the commercial market would raise their price among collectors, earning more for Native hunters with fewer deaths. I guess one could argue that such a practice would encourage poaching, which both the Inuit and Canadian delegates at CITES said was currently nonexistent.

It comes down to climate change, really. In the grand scheme of things, the potential extinction of polar bears is but a horrifying side effect of a warming Arctic. When will the world agree on ways to save not just our wildlife, but our planet too?

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