MOSCOW, Russia (Dec. 5, 2013) — As the biennial meeting of the international Polar Bear Agreement began today in Moscow, Russia, new data points to an unsustainable rise in hunting that threatens the species. Despite the grim outlook for polar bears due to the growing threat of climate change, Canadian polar bear kills have risen at alarming rate, in excess of 10 percent over previous years.
“Canada’s claims at this conference that polar bear hunting is not harming polar bear populations are disingenuous,” said Teresa Telecky, director of wildlife at Humane Society International, referring to a recent report by Canada’s Polar Bear Technical Committee. “Canada’s own scientists are raising alarm about over-harvest not only in the past year but in the past three to five years. Canada and the other parties to the Polar Bear Agreement urgently need to address this problem.”
Scientific experts at the meeting detailed the impact of sea-ice loss on polar bear survival, including loss of food source, loss of body condition, and fewer cubs surviving. Scientists continue to predict that two-thirds of polar bears will be lost by 2050.
“Polar bears already face an enormous threat from climate change, and we absolutely must reduce greenhouse gas emissions to save the species,” said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Adding overhunting to an already deadly situation is speeding up the polar bear’s extinction.”
In 1973 the Polar Bear Agreement was adopted by five countries within the polar bear’s range to combat overhunting. Polar bears face new challenges as their sea-ice habitat disappears, and countries are struggling to keep up with the changes. Despite the well-recognized threat of global warming, Canada tripled its quota for one already-declining polar bear population and is proposing increases in two other populations. In 2012, 740 of the animals were shot by hunters in Canada — almost 80 more than the average over the previous five years of 663.
“Global sentiment on this issue seems clear, as most every country has banned the trade and commercial export of polar bear parts,” said Elly Pepper, policy advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Yet Canada continues to allow substantial harvest and trade. Their populations are perhaps key to the species climate change survival, making the country’s outlier stance all the more vexing.”
Prices for polar bear hides have skyrocketed, quadrupling since 2007 to USD$22,000 for a single hide, and doubling in the last year alone. Demand for polar bear skins is also growing, particularly in China where skins sell for up to USD$80,000 each. Polar bear scientists today said that three of the four polar bear populations that are known to be declining are also threatened by hunting.
“Polar bears need protection from skin sellers and marketers,” said Telecky of HSI. “We cannot stand by while polar bears are sold off to the highest bidder.”
The Polar Bear Specialist Group, an expert science panel created to provide scientific advice on the Agreement, also provided an update on the status of several polar bear populations. The scientists reported that, of 19 subpopulations, four are currently declining, and nine remain too “data deficient” to determine a trend. And while each polar bear population will respond differently to global warming in the short term, the story in the long term is the same — the polar bear faces total extinction within our lifetimes if the world fails to act on climate change.
At the meeting, the parties agreed to a declaration recognizing the importance of addressing climate change and underscoring that additional stressors, like overharvest, must be reduced. Parties also agreed to address poaching and illegal trade and to improve reporting and monitoring of legal trade. However, specific measures to implement the declaration remain unclear.