Science & Environment

Polar bear trade ban 'too close to call'

Pelts and other body parts are exported from bears hunted in the Canadian Arctic
Image caption Pelts and other body parts are exported from bears hunted in the Canadian Arctic

An attempt to ban the international trade in polar bear parts has provoked a heated battle at the Cites conservation meeting in Bangkok.

Negotiators are split on the plan, with those in favour saying it is crucial for the survival of the species.

Canada's Inuit say the trade should continue as it is critical to their economic survival.

And some campaign groups are also opposing it, saying the ban isn’t scientifically justified.

There are about 25,000 polar bears left in the world with an estimated 16,000 living in the Canadian Arctic. Canada is the only country that permits the export of polar bear parts.

Each year around 600 polar bears are killed there, mainly by native hunters. According to Inuit representatives, the pelts from around 300 bears are sold for rugs. Other parts including fangs and paws are also exported.

The Inuit say they get an average of $4,850 per pelt. They argue that this is a critical economic resource for a people that don't have much else.

Unsustainable killing

Many countries, including the US, believe the killing of the bears in these numbers is unsustainable. They’ve tabled a proposal at Cites to ban the international trade in bear parts.

This is being supported by former cold war enemy Russia. They argue that the legal export trade from Canada is being taken advantage of by criminals who use false Canadian permits to export the pelts from around two hundred Russian bears each year.

The proposal has been stridently opposed by Canada. Their delegates at the Cites meeting said that trade was not detrimental to the bears and they argue that because they can adjust hunting quotas, the future of the species is protected.

The European Union has attempted to build a compromise - but their proposal has been roundly criticised by those in favour of the ban as a complete non-starter who say it does little more than impose a requirement to publish export quotas.

Speaking at a reception in Thailand, Dan Ashe, the head of the US delegation, called upon all the delegates to reject the EU compromise and asked them to support the American proposal. According to those in attendance he was robustly supported by Russian scientists.

Many campaigners believe that since the US and Russia are against the compromise, the EU might withdraw their proposal and abstain from the vote.

“If the US proposal is voted on and the EU abstains we think there’s a good change that it will succeed,” Mark Jones from Humane Society International told BBC News.

“But it is an uncertain outcome at this point.”

Price hike

Another delegate, Dr Colman O’Criodain from WWF agreed it was difficult to predict what would happen.

“I wouldn’t be betting one way or another at this stage – though we are prepared for either scenario,” he said.

The campaign groups are themselves divided on the best approach to protecting the bears.

Many argue that the prices paid for polar bear skins have increased markedly in recent years. They say that hunting quotas have been raised in response.

As an example they point to the Western Hudson Bay area in Canada and say that hunting quotas were tripled there in 2012 against the advice of the Canadian government.

Mark Jones says that this is an issue that won’t go away.

“It will come up again and again until countries understand you can’t have a sustainable trade in a species that’s expected to precipitously decline over the coming decades.”

But Dr O’Criodain from WWF disagrees. He says the impact of international trade is negligible for the survival of the species.

He believes the main reason for opposing the ban is the credibility of Cites. Too often the convention has put vested interests ahead of science he says. And it is the same thing with the polar bear issue.

“If the vote on polar bears is swayed by what seems politically popular in some countries, it is the same vice, and that is damaging for the credibility of the Convention,” he said.

“We couldn’t be arguing that counties must follow the science on sharks and then saying we ignore it on polar bears.”

The vote in Bangkok has now been scheduled for Thursday.

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