Polar Bears’ Other Threat

It’s not just climate change that’s killing this iconic endangered species. Hunting is on the rise, too.

Polar bears have it rough. They’ve become the poster animals for climate change as the world watches the sea ice they rely on disappear. Oil and gas development is further destroying their fragile habitat. And recent studies have shown that pollution is even damaging their penis bones, which could prevent successful mating. Ouch.

To add insult to considerable injury, they’re being hunted. Still.

Even though climate change is predicted to take out two-thirds of these animals in the next 35 years, hunting is on the rise. During the 2012-13 hunting season, 740 polar bears were killed—considerably more than the average of the previous five years, which was 663.

A few bears are killed each year by people acting in self-defense, but the majority are tracked and hunted in Canada—home to approximately 15,000 of an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 bears remaining in the world. Canada is the only nation that still allows polar bear hunting for commerce.

And by “commerce” we mean trophy hunting. The skin trade is alive and lucrative in many countries. Some polar bear pelts fetch upwards of $20,000 at auction, and prices continue to soar as demand for hides grows. Skulls, teeth, and claws are also of interest to certain clientele.Thanks to a petition and legal action by the Center for Biological Diversity, NRDC, and Greenpeace, polar bears were given threatened species status under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 2008. That made it illegal for Americans to bring polar bear parts across the border. But it doesn’t stop wealthy U.S. hunters from “taking their stuffed polar bear to their Swiss chalet,” says NRDC staff attorney Zak Smith. Meanwhile, non-Americans from countries without regulations can and do hunt in Canada and carry their goods home.

The United States and Russia have fought to put an end to all international trade in polar bear parts, offering proposals on multiple occasions to the international governing body known as CITES, or the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. Unfortunately, these proposals have so far been unsuccessful.

But no one’s giving up yet. NRDC is working to get governments on board and spur grassroots efforts in other countries to support a worldwide ban, Smith says. “Given the threat climate change poses to polar bears, we must take all steps necessary to limit harm if we’re going to give them the best chance to survive,” he reasons. “That means barring the killing of them—except in the case of subsistence hunts or in defense of life.”

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