The Inuit see the animal as a fierce predator, a cultural symbol and a valuable source of food, warmth and money in a part of the world where all three are in short supply.Yet to animal-welfare and green groups in warmer places the polar bears are both an icon in the fight against climate change and an animal under threat of extinction. The melting of the Arctic’s ice cap, which the bears use as a hunting platform, means the estimated population of between 20,000 and 25,000 will decline sharply, they say. They see hunting the bears as an anachronism and want international trade in bear pelts and parts, already severely restricted, completely banned.
These opposing views are set to clash at a meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an intergovernmental agreement, between March 3rd and 14th in Bangkok. Having failed at the previous meeting of CITES in 2010, the United States is again leading a move to switch the polar bear from Appendix II of the convention to Appendix I, which would ban trade in all but “exceptional” circumstances. The American proposal is backed by Russia but opposed by Canada, Norway, Denmark (which represents Greenland) and the CITES secretariat.
The debate promises to be emotional. What it lacks are facts. The Americans acknowledge that only eight of the 19 known groups of polar bears have been surveyed since 2000. Of the remaining 11, four have never been surveyed. The submission relies on a controversial forecast undertaken for the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 2007 that suggests the decline in sea ice will lead to the disappearance of two-thirds of the world’s polar bears by 2050. Should the United States obtain the two-thirds majority needed to change the bear’s status, it will be a blow to the Inuit. Their trade in walrus tusks and narwhal horns has dried up because of curbs on sales of ivory designed largely to protect elephants. The trade in seal pelts and meat was curtailed by a 2009 import ban by the European Union, though this granted a limited exemption to indigenous peoples.
In Canada polar bears are hunted under annual quotas set by territorial governments. The Inuit trade bear pelts, claws and teeth, and sell some of the quota to trophy hunters, who employ local guides and buy local supplies…..
Countries which want to become observers at the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental body, will be reluctant to vote against Canada, Norway and Denmark on the issue. Canada takes over as chairman of the council in May. Still, it will take resolve to stand up to the United States, also a council member, and the array of animal-welfare and environmental groups backing its position.
The Inuit also argue that if the problem is climate change, to ban trade in polar bears is to attack the symptom rather than the cause. That was the argument of the European Union’s environment commissioner, Janez Potocnik, when the European Parliament debated the issue earlier this month. But the MEPs still voted in support of the American position.
Canada’s Inuit: Polar-bear politics, Economist, Feb. 23, at 36