A U.S.-backed proposal to ban the international trade of polar bear skins, teeth and claws was defeated on Thursday at a U.N. wildlife meeting over concerns it would hurt indigenous economies and arguments the practice didn’t pose a significant threat to the animals.
The Americans argued at the 175-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, that the sale of polar bears skins was compounding the loss of the animals’ sea ice habitat due to climate change. There are projections that the bear’s numbers, which are estimated at 20,000 to 25,000, could decline by two-thirds by 2050 due to habitat loss in the Arctic.
“We’re disappointed,” said Jane Lyder, the Department of Interior’s deputy assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks. “But we understand that CITES is still trying to understand how to incorporate climate change into its decision making.” Jane Lyder added.
Canada, along with Norway and Greenland, led the opposition to the U.S. proposal. They said the threat from trade was minimal and the hunting done by Aboriginal communities was critical to their economies. Only 2 per cent of Canadian polar bears are internationally traded and the country strictly manages the commerce, Canada said.
“There is no doubt that action must continue to ensure the conservation of polar bears. Canada’s goal is long term survival of polar bears,” Canadian representative Basile Van Havre said. “But Canada does not think the proposal is supported by facts.” Basile Van Havre added.
Frank Pokiak, an indigenous leader from Canada, said communities in the Arctic have hunted bears for generations, mostly for meat for food and pelts for clothing and shelter. He said they hunt them in a sustainable way and would continue doing so with or without an international ban.
“We have always cared for land and the wildlife because we have a lot to lose,” Pokiak told delegates. “If it wasn’t for polar bears and other wildlife that we harvest, we wouldn’t exist today.” Frank Pokiak said.
The big white bear, the world’s largest land meat-eater, “nanuq” to the Inuit, may be uniquely susceptible to climate change as rising temperatures fast shrink its habitat, the Arctic sea ice.
Many bears spend their whole lives on the ice, mating, giving birth and hunting for their main prey, the ringed seal. But Arctic summers may be almost free of sea ice within 30 years, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted last April.
Data available on polar bear trade shows that since the early 1990s the market for polar bear carcasses and parts has increased. From 1992 to 2006, approximately 31,294 live polar bears, carcasses or parts were exported to 73 different countries, according to data collected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
Skins are the most popular export item, and Canada is the largest commercial exporter.