In 2010, at an international conservation convention in Doha, the nations of the world had the opportunity to put into place new protections for imperiled polar bears against unsustainable international trade. However, with a final tally of 48 "for" to 62 "against," the vote went against the polar bear. During the conference debate, there was much discussion on livelihoods of local people, as well as the role of climate change, but little argument that the species wasn't in desperate need of help. Yet the countries present were not able to circumvent the other political arguments, and trade in polar bears internationally remained legal.
Between 2001 and 2010, over 37,000 specimens were traded internationally -representing conservatively at least 5,680 whole bears. This included hides, claws, skulls, trophies and live zoo animals. At the same time, top scientists were predicting that two-thirds of all wild polar bear populations will disappear in the next forty years. One of the most frightening facts: since that vote in 2010, things have only gotten significantly worse for polar bears.
On Sept. 16, 2012, the National Snow and Ice Data Center reported the smallest Arctic sea ice cover in history - a full 300,000 sq. kilometers less than ever before recorded. So the actual rate of habitat loss for polar bears is exceeding even the dire predictions made only a few years ago. And without sea ice, polar bears cannot survive. They are dependent on this habitat for hunting their primary food source - seals. As sea ice cover diminishes, polar bears are suffering - with studies showing lower survival rates, decreased reproductive success and reduced body conditions.
On top of this, demand for polar bears in commercial trade has sharply increased, with the price of skins more than doubling since 2008. And some wildlife management authorities in Canada, the only polar bear range country that still allows commercial harvest for trophies and international trade, have been known to ignore the best available science by raising bear hunting quotas despite objections from the scientific community.
For polar bears to have another chance, not only does the global community need to address climate change, but it must rally around this iconic species and protect polar bears from the needless threat of hunting for trophies and commercial trade while there are still polar bears left to save. With another vote at the upcoming CITES Conference of the Parties, polar bears could possibly receive the protections they need. Hopefully this time the nations will leave behind the side-politics and vote purely on the trade and biological criteria that polar bears clearly meet.
The United States was a leader in pushing for greater protection for polar bears two years ago, and can be again today - they just need to submit a proposal for increased protections by October 4th. If polar bears are lucky enough to be considered again for these protections by CITES, the voting countries will have more than enough information to consider when they look at the criteria and the most recent trade and biological data. It all reflects the species' continuingly worsening predicament. The future of polar bears is in the hands of the United States, and hopefully they will give polar bears the second chance they desperately need.
This blog post is also on the IFAW website.
-Jeff Flocken is the D.C. Office Director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).