Despite polar bears’ threatened status and questionable future, the 178 member nations of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) rejected a proposal to ban the commercial trade in polar bear parts this week.
There are currently an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears left in the wild, found can be found in the U.S., Canada, Russia, Denmark and Norway, with two-thirds of the total population residing in Canada – the only country that allows polar bears to being legally hunted for their pelts, paws, skulls and teeth, among other parts.
An estimated 800 polar bears are killed by hunters every year, with about half of these bears’ skins winding up in international trade as prices for them continue to rise. Each year, an average of 3,200 items made from polar bears, with their hides selling for an average of $2,000 to $5,000, while maximum hide prices have topped $12,000, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).
The U.S., along with strong support from the Russian Federation, proposed uplisting polar bears from Appendix II to Appendix I of CITES — the highest level of protection a species can get — which would have ended commercial trade.
Unfortunately for polar bears, the proposal didn’t get enough votes to move forward and was rejected by a vote of 42 to 38, with 46 abstentions.
Some who opposed the proposal believe that climate change is a much larger threat to polar bears than commercial trade. According to the National Snow & Ice Data Center, Arctic sea ice reached its lowest point last September, which was the lowest sea ice extent since 1979. That data is compounded by the belief that that current sea ice models may only be able to offer conservative forecasts and underestimate the rate and level of loss in the future.
“We reached out to our CITES counterparts in many other nations to show that the science supported an Appendix-I listing. Unfortunately, politics seem to have overtaken science,” said Dan Ashe, head of the U.S. delegation.
Canada maintains that international trade is not a threat to polar bears and that it has carefully tailored its hunting quotas to maintain healthy populations. However, conservationists pointed out that the Canadian territory of Nunavut tripled its harvest quota for the most imperiled population of polar bears in 2011 and raised it again last year, according to the LA Times.
The USFWS argued that limiting commercial trade would have addressed a source of non-climate related stress for polar bears that would aid in their recovery and cites numbers that indicate that while some populations are stable or increasing, more than a dozen are either declining or haven’t been checked in decades.
“We’re incredibly disappointed by this shortsighted decision,” Sarah Uhlemann, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity who is attending the CITES conference said in a statement. “Unless the world moves quickly to combat climate change, two-thirds of the world’s polar bears will be gone by 2050, and added pressure from unsustainable Canadian hunting will only hasten the extinction of this spectacular animal.”
Photo credit: Thinkstock