International Failure Puts Polar Bears Closer to Extinction

Polar bear (photo by NOAA)

As I wrote last week, the international community rejected a US proposal to ban the global commercial trade in polar bear parts (skins, teeth, claws, skulls) at a meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Bangkok, Thailand.  For the second time in three years, parties to the convention turned their backs on the plight of polar bears and the threat over hunting poses to the species – a species that, according to the best science, will likely lose more than two-thirds of its population by 2050 as a result of climate change.

It was this dual threat of climate change and over hunting that created one of the biggest challenges for the US proposal.  Parties at CITES are used to assessing and analyzing the impacts international trade has on species threatened by over hunting or "unsustainable harvest," but are not used to doing so when climate change is thrown into the mix.  This unfamiliarity created the perfect opening for Canada – the only country where polar bears live that allows the killing of the animals to supply the global market – and others opposed to the proposal, like Denmark and Norway, to cast doubt on the science and question whether banning trade would benefit the species.   

It’s shortsighted at best and duplicitous at most.  Shortsighted because over hunting to supply the global market for polar bears adds unnecessary stress to populations already suffering from climate change.  With mounting pressures from climate change, polar bear populations need to be strengthened to increase their chance to survive in the future.  Weakened populations will be less likely to withstand climate change impacts, making them more susceptible to sudden threats like early earlier sea-ice loss.  Only a ban on international commercial trade would ensure that global demand is not driving over hunting.  Duplicitous because many of those making money off of selling polar bear parts on the global market have pushed doubts to continue the status quo of selling skins for money as opposed to taking a precautionary approach for species protection.

The European Union is particularly responsible for the failure of the US proposal.  Once again the EU, which votes as a 27-state block, failed to support banning the global profit-driven trade in polar bear parts.  Unable to reach agreement internally, even though the majority of EU member states and the EU Parliament supported, the EU refused to support the US proposal and instead pushed its own proposal, which put no limitations on international trade.  Failing to provide any benefit to polar bears, the EU proposal also failed.

After the international community turned its back on over hunting for commercial trade, what’s next for polar bears?  Will polar bears continue to be hunted to supply the global market and will decisions on the number of polar bears to be killed each year be made against a backdrop of ever-higher demand and prices for their skins?  Maybe, in the short term.  But if we keep up the pressure and continue to explain the polar bear’s plight, we will be able to convince countries to end the global market.  We didn’t this time, but as long as polar bears have a chance of withstanding climate change, we’ll continue to work for their protection through CITES or other forums.

About the Authors

Zak Smith

Senior Attorney, Marine Mammal Protection Project, Land & Wildlife Program

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