An American proposal to ban international trade in polar bears and their parts has been defeated at a meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
The proposal, which was backed by Russia, would have moved polar bears from CITES Appendix II, in which trade is permitted but regulated, to Appendix I, in which trade is prohibited. The United States argued that, while diminishing sea ice due to climate change is the greatest threat facing polar bears, hunting creates additional and increasing pressure. The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) said that the price of pelts had soared in parallel with increased demand from China, and noted that the Canadian territory of Nunavut had tripled its harvest quota in 2011.
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Canada – home to an estimated 16,000 of the approximately 25,000 polar bears in the world, and the only country to allow the export of polar bear pelts and parts – vehemently opposed the proposal. Inuit representatives argued that the income they derive from the polar bear hunt is essential for their communities, and that the 600 or so polar bears taken in a year do not threaten any polar bear populations.
Although some European Union nations, including the United Kingdom, Germany and Poland, had offered strong backing for the U.S. proposal, the EU ultimately submitted a surprise "compromise", which would have required Canada merely to report its export figures and provide information on polar bear trade and populations. This compromise had the effect of offending both sides, and was not voted on.
In the end, 38 countries voted in favor of the U.S. proposal, with 42 against and 46 abstentions.
"We're incredibly disappointed by this shortsighted decision," said Sarah Uhlemann of CBD. "Unless the world moves quickly to combat climate change, two-thirds of the world's polar bears will be gone by 2050, and added pressure from unsustainable Canadian hunting will only hasten the extinction of this spectacular animal."
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Meanwhile, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a 2008 decision to list polar bears as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act. The decision had been challenged by the State of Alaska.
"Today's decision is the latest legal confirmation of the indisputable science on climate change and the very real threats that polar bears face," said CBD's Kassie Siegel. "If we're going to save polar bears, the Obama administration needs to move swiftly to cut greenhouse pollution."
Photograph of polar bear on the sea ice near Herald Island in the Russian Arctic by Kieran Mulvaney