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Hunting for Skin Trade Threatens Already Beleaguered Polar Bears

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Polar bears are in crisis. Human-induced climate change means that their icy habitat is fast disappearing and estimates made by leading scientists in the Arctic suggest that numbers of polar bears could fall by as much as two-thirds by 2050 [i].

And yet, incredibly, Canada still allows the hides and parts of hundreds of hunted bears to be sold into international markets each year.

Climate change
There are currently estimated to be 20-25,000 polar bears in 19 populations in five range states - Canada, the United States, Russia, Norway and Greenland. Around two-thirds of these bears live in 13 populations wholly or partially in Canada. More than half of Canadian polar bear populations are already known to be in decline.

Reduction in sea ice extent and thickness as a result of climate change poses the biggest threat to this iconic species. Polar bears need sea ice in order to hunt, but the area covered by sea ice in the Arctic has fallen by approximately 40 percent in the past 12 years, and the average sea ice thickness has been reduced by almost 50 percent since 1980 [ii]. By mid-September 2012, Arctic sea ice had reached its lowest extent since satellite records began. It is no wonder the future for the Ice Bear looks grim.

In spite of this, the commercial exploitation of polar bears by hunters is on the increase.

Value Placed on Polar Bear Parts
Canada is the only country that allows the parts of hunted polar bears to be commercially traded internationally; about 600 are killed there every year [iii]. Hunting quotas in Canada are set by provincial and territorial wildlife boards. While the licenses to hunt are only granted to indigenous people, they can be resold to non-indigenous people for sport hunting; and indigenous people can sell raw bear parts locally or internationally.

Consider these statistics: Between 2001 and 2010, more than 30,000 polar bear parts were traded internationally, according to a database maintained by the U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. In fact, body parts from many of the bears currently hunted in Canada find their way into international trade as indigenous hunters cash in on the bears they have killed, supposedly for subsistence purposes.

Within the trade, the increasingly exorbitant prices being paid for polar bear parts only serves to incentivise the commercial exploitation of bears. Buyers in Russia and China are paying as much as US$100,000 [iv] for polar bear hides. At fur auctions in Canada, hides now fetch an average of more than US$5,000 and can go for US$12,500 or more, a greater than two-fold increase over a five-year period. It can be no coincidence that, during the same period, the average number of polar bear hides offered at auction in Canada each year more than tripled, to 150 in 2012.

Canada would do well to follow Greenland's lead, as that country banned international trade in polar bear parts and products in 2008. However, what we see instead are authorities increasing quotas in some Canadian provinces, against advice from both polar bear scientists and Canadian federal government officials. The Canadian territory of Nunavut has increased its quota for the Western Hudson Bay population three-fold in the past three seasons, even though scientists consider the population to be in decline, and most of the Canadian populations of polar bears are, or recently have been, subjected to unsustainable levels of hunting.

In addition, the targeting of prized large male bears by hunters risks skewing sex ratios in polar bear populations, potentially lowering future breeding success [v].

Russian scientists also believe that the legal import of Canadian polar bear hides into Russia is providing a cover for laundering of hides from illegally killed Russian bears, and is therefore stimulating bear poaching in Russia. It is estimated that several hundred bears are illegally killed in Russia each year [vi].

CITES ban
The United States has proposed a ban on all international commercial trade in polar bears and their parts by 'uplisting' the species to the highest level of protection under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

The triennial Conference of the Parties will take place in Bangkok, Thailand, in March. The US proposal is backed by Russia, while other Parties, including the influential European Union (which votes as a bloc of 27 countries at CITES meetings), are currently considering their positions. If the proposal is to pass, the European vote will be critical. Humane Society International and our partner organisations in the Species Survival Network call on the EU to support the US proposal at the CITES meeting.

Protection
The primary threat to polar bears is irrefutably the loss of their habitat as a result of climate change, and we must do everything in our power to urgently address this, but there are no simple and quick solutions.

In the meantime, it is obvious that we need to take all the other human pressures off polar bear populations. Hunting the bears to sell their parts into international commercial trade is one impact that can, and should, be removed in order to give the Ice Bear the best possible chance of survival. While the strongest CITES listing will not impact true subsistence hunting by indigenous peoples, it will prevent killings motivated by the international polar bear parts trade, and will help protect an estimated 300 bears each year who would have otherwise been killed for this trade.

Unless everything possible is done to protect this species right now, the only polar bears alive in a few decades time could be a few sad specimens languishing in zoos.

That is why all parties to CITES must support the US proposal and vote to give polar bears the maximum protection against international trade.

Join Humane Society International/UK in saying "I'm There for the Polar Bear" -- Call on the government to support the US proposal at the upcoming CITES meeting.

Read more about HSI's wildlife work and CITES.

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[i] Amstrup, S.C., B.G. Marcot, and D.C. Douglas (2007). Forecasting the range-wide status of polar bears at selected times in the 21st century. U.S. Geological Survey Administrative Report, Reston, Virginia. 126pp.

[ii] Kwok, R. and D.A. Rothrock (2009), Decline in Arctic sea ice thickness from submarine and ICES at records: 1958-2008, Geophys. Res. Lett., 36, L15501, doi:10.1029/2009GL039035.

[iii] Peacock, E., Derocher, A.E., Thiemann, G.W., Stirling, I. 2011. Conservation and management of Canada's polar bears (Ursus maritimus) in a changing Arctic. Canadian Journal of Zoology 89: 371-385.

[iv] Izvestia (2012). В России процветает черный рынок белых медведей. Izvestia, June 16, 2012.

[v] Molnár, P.K., A.E. Derocher, M.A. Lewis, and M.K. Taylor (2008). Modelling the mating system of polar bears: a mechanistic approach to the Allee effect. Proc. R. Soc. B 2008 275: 217-226.

[vi] U.S. CITES proposal. http://www.cites.org/eng/cop/16/prop/E-CoP16-Prop-03.pdf 2013: 8.