WASHINGTON DC, March 06, 2013 – The fate of the polar bears has been in the news lately as climate change is increasingly endangering their survival. A vote Thursday, March 7, 2013 at the CITES Conservation Meeting in Bangkok, Thailand could ban all commercial exports of polar bear parts.
What seems like a no-brainer is anything but. The vote is becoming increasingly contentious, bringing the U.S. and Russia together against Canada in an unlikely and unexpected alliance.
CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, has 178 signatory nations and is the only international body that regulates trade in endangered species. Species included in Appendix I of the Convention are considered threatened with extinction, and trade in these species is only permitted under exceptional conditions, like scientific purposes. Due to their inclusion in Appendix I, for example, trade in things like rhinoceros horns and elephant tusks is prohibited.
The U.S. presented a proposal to include polar bears in Appendix I at the CITES conference in Doha, Quatar, in 2010, but did not garner the necessary 2/3 majority to pass.
The current U.S proposal would include polar bears in Appendix I and effectively ban commercial trade in polar bear furs, teeth, claws, skulls, etc. but allow non-commercial and scientific trade. Canada, where an estimated 16,000 of the world’s 25,000 polar bears live, is passionately opposing the U.S. proposal.
The EU has presented a compromise where countries would be forced to publish their export quotas, but it has been rejected by both sides.
Canada is the only country that allows foreign trade in polar bear body parts. The other four countries that have polar bears (U.S., Russia, Greenland, and Norway) impose restrictions on the type of people who may hunt, and set limits on domestic sales of polar bear parts.
Since polar bears are on the endangered species list, under most circumstances they cannot be hunted in Canada. However, the government in Ottawa also considers polar bears to be a “species of special concern,” meaning they can be hunted under certain circumstances.
Using special permits issued by the Canadian government, every year around 600 polar bears are hunted by local Inuit. To qualify for a polar bear hunting license in Canada, a person must be aboriginal or hire and aboriginal guide. The pelts of around 300 polar bears are sold annually as rugs, usually selling for $4,850 to $10,000 each. Other body parts are also sold; just one polar bear tooth can fetch up to $200.
The current U.S. proposal has met with an unlikely supporter: Russia. This coalition is especially surprising given that Russia voted against the same U.S. proposal that failed to pass in 2010.
However, both Russia and the U.S. argue that significant changes since 2010 including a decline in population, additional hunting, and loss of arctic ice make polar bears more endangered than they were three years ago and justify their inclusion in Appendix I.
The U.S. and other supporters of the ban like Humane Society International argue that commercial trade of polar bear parts is simply unsustainable as is commercial trade in any endangered species. Russia also argues that poachers use false Canadian permits to export 200 pelts every year from bears hunted in Russia.
On the other side of the argument, Canada and Denmark, which is representing Greenland, argue that the greatest threat to polar bear survival is climate change, not hunting or trade. They also argue that polar bear hunting is vital to Inuit economic survival and that the ban is not scientifically justified. They also argue that properly managing hunting quotas will ensure little to no impact on polar bear populations.
An unlikely supporter of the Canadian position, Dr. Colman O’Criodain of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) stated that trade is so minimal that it does not impact the survival of the species. Moreover, Dr. O’Coridan argues that CITES credibility is at stake, and that yielding to political pressure will set the wrong precedent.
The outcome of the vote Thursday is uncertain. Norway, the other of the five countries where polar bears live, has not announced how it will vote.
The EU proposal, rejected by both sides, may be withdrawn. If that happens, the EU may abstain from voting, in which case the U.S. and Russia may obtain the necessary votes to pass the ban, but this is by no means a sure thing.
A vote and final decision is expected Thursday. If rejected, the proposal cannot be submitted again until 2016.
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