Last week at a United Nations conference, sixty-two countries voted against a measure that would have helped ensure the survival of the polar bear. This voting block, which included Spain, the United Kingdom, Japan, New Zealand and the Netherlands, was enough to stop a proposal put forward by the United States that would have saved thousands of polar bears from a preventable death over the next decade. And while the debate raged over the threat of melting ice and its relevance to commercial trade in wildlife, in the end the red-herring of climate change was used as an excuse to continue the lucrative business of shooting polar bears for hides, parts and trophies.
The primary threat to polar bears is loss of habitat due to climate change -- a complex and long-term threat requiring difficult decisions and costly strategies to address. However, the commercial trade in polar bears not only results in over three hundred bears being killed annually, but also serves as a cover for a black-market in polar bears that have been poached in countries like Russia. This number does not even account for the hundreds of polar bears that are killed by wealthy sport hunters from the United States and Europe who travel to Canada to kill bears for mounted trophies every year. The Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the backdrop of the UN conference, explicitly exempts trophy hunting from commercial trade restrictions despite the Convention's mandate to protect species from extinction due to over-exploitation.
In addition to climate change, the opposition focused upon the economic needs of Canadian Inuit, and the economic benefits of the trade in polar bear heads and hides to local Inuit communities. No discussion was made of the fact that the international protections offered by CITES are supposed to be based solely on scientific criteria or that a few local operations exploiting polar bears are at-best a short-term fix for much broader problems facing the Inuit communities. Tying base economic development on commercial trade in polar bears is short-sighted as the bear numbers continue to decline, thereby rendering future exploitation moot and leaving the Inuit economically back where they started before they began commercially exploiting polar bears at the Canadian government's urging less than fifty years ago.
The best and most recent scientific studies project that two thirds of polar bear populations will have disappeared in the next 45 years, with almost all the rest quietly slipping away by the end of the century. The compounded threats to these bears include loss of vital habitat for hunting and breeding due to climate change, poaching, pollution from oil and gas operations in the Arctic, and exploitation from trophy hunting and commercial trade. If the world community is serious about saving this beloved icon, it will absolutely need to address climate change. But the precautionary principle of conservation requires that all threats, including those that just act as a cumulative threat adding to others, be addressed whenever and however possible. And in the case of hundreds of polar bears being killed needlessly for rugs, skins and other ornamental parts such as skulls, teeth and claws, there is just no justification to continue this trade.
With as few as 20,000 polar bears thought to be remaining in the wild, it is unconscionable that the same country delegates who cooed and fawned over stuffed polar bear toys being offered at the conference chose to sentence thousands of live polar bears to death despite projections of their virtual extinction in the wild at the end of the century. And yet they did.
So while all the countries at the conference agreed that it was a shame that habitat loss from climate change would wipe out most of the remaining polar bears, countries like Canada, Denmark and the European Union nations loudly staked out their right to kill surviving polar bears for frivolous luxury items, vanity trophy-hunted mounts and short-term monetary profits. Human greed wins again.