CITES to World: Get Your Polar Bear Rugs While You Can

As you may have already heard, last week the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (“CITES” or “the Convention”) rejected a US proposal to ban the international trade of polar bear parts.  I was at the conference in Doha, Qatar, fighting for greater protections for polar bears and witnessed firsthand the discussion and vote that rejected the US proposal.  (For background on the Convention and what was at stake for polar bears, read my previous blogs, here, here, and here.)  Unfortunately, the message from the Convention seems clear; with declining polar bear populations and the estimated loss of over 70 percent of all polar bears within the next 45 years, you should act now to buy all the polar bear rugs, teeth, and claws that you can.  If you wait too long, perhaps until you have settled on which part of the Alps to buy a ski lodge, it may be too late.

It is a sad message to come out of an organization that was formed to ensure that international trade does not contribute to the extinction of a species.  So what went wrong?  Why did parties vote against the US proposal?  Speaking to delegates during the week leading up to the vote, I heard different bases for opposing the US proposal:  this is a climate change issue, not a trade issue; the trade in polar bear parts is not a significant threat to polar bears; and banning the international trade in polar bears will negatively impact Inuit communities.

Responding to the first two arguments was always easy – yes, the biggest threat to polar bears is climate change, but it is not the only threat.  Today, 10 of the 19 recognized polar bear populations likely suffer from current or historical over-hunting and many of these populations have already been classified as “declining” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.  Given the predicted decline in the total polar bear population by over 70 percent in the next 45 years, we should act now to strengthen the polar bear populations that have the best chance of surviving – all found in Canada, which currently allows the killing of 300 polar bears per year for the international trade in polar bear parts.

Responding to the last argument was always more difficult because it created a false choice between protecting polar bears and people’s livelihoods.  Nonetheless, it is the question that Canada, opposed to the US proposal, spent the most time putting before delegates.  There is one main reason why the choice is false:  banning the international trade of polar bear parts would likely reduce the number of polar bears killed in Canada, strengthening polar bear populations, and resulting in more bears available for a longer period of time for subsistence use.  What Canada was really pushing was short-term gain versus long-term gain.  Yes, in the short run, some individual hunters and home decorators would have lost out by not being able to sell/buy polar bears rugs on the international market.  But in the long run, polar bear populations would have been strengthened in Canada and Russia (Russian polar bear populations suffer from illegal poaching that is driven, in part, by the legal market for polar bear parts), which would have provided a greater chance that polar bear could continue to be harvested for subsistence purposes into the future.