ACTION: International polar bear conservation - Canada vs the world?
The International Forum on Polar Bear Conservation took place earlier this month in Moscow, Russia. The meeting, organized by WWF Russia, was a gathering of the polar bear range states set to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the Agreement on the Conservation of the Polar Bear, signed in 1973. IFAW was one of only five NGOs at the Forum, and I was excited to be able to represent IFAW Canada.
Prior to the Forum, there were a few mutterings about how big the Canadian delegation was, but perhaps this was only fair given that Canada is home to more polar bears than any other range state – in fact some 75% of the world’s remaining polar bears live in Canada. Because of this, a large part of the huge responsibility of polar bear conservation will fall on Canada’s shoulders.
The gravity of the situation was immediately apparent. The threats facing polar bears today are vastly different, yet no less serious, than 40 years ago. Pollution and overhunting have now been overshadowed by the threat of climate change and the diminishing sea pack ice habitat on which the polar bear depends. Pollution and industrial development, legal and illegal hunting, and ocean acidification were among other threats identified.
Most of the range states made note of the serious threats facing polar bears, identified the priority measures being taken to address them, pointed to their national strategies or action plans and stated the targets set for reaching their objectives for polar bear conservation.
A common thread throughout the discussions was the engagement of local people in decision making, and the use of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) and its incorporation into the general body of knowledge used to make management decisions and set quotas.
An independent scientist from the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group stressed the importance of a long-term view: while there is uncertainty as to what might happen in the near term, the fact remains that the planet is warming and that the decline of sea ice on which the polar bear depends is going to worsen.
He stressed that the precautionary principle should be applied: we need to protect polar bears now if we are to give them a fighting chance against those threats expected to increase in the future.
And then there was Canada.
We often read about how Canada stands alone in our position when it comes to our role in international environmental agreements, but here I was able to see firsthand how out-of-step Canada’s approach to environmental protection and conservation appears to the rest of the world.
It was clear from the presentations made by Canadian representatives that Canada is going to “do its own thing” when it comes to polar bears -- a worrying proposition considering that the Canadian position seems to fly in the face of international scientific consensus.
Some of the more unusual statements made by members of the Canadian delegation included:
- “if we have a polar bear problem, it is not that there are too few bears but too many in areas inhabited by humans,”
- “climate change is an issue, but not a crisis,”
- and that
- “polar bears are a resource to be managed, based on the conditions today, not what we believe them to be in the future.”
Canada is pursuing increased Arctic development and exploration with little mention made of measures that could be taken to mitigate the harm this could cause polar bears. A release distributed by the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami seemed more focused on criticizing unnamed “animal rights groups who seek to shut down all hunting and trade of animal products,” rather than addressing any real threats facing polar bears.
But the threats to polar bears are real, and they are increasing. IFAW is urging decision makers to rally on behalf of polar bears once more, and work together to protect this iconic species from the multiple threats it faces – and not only those faced today, but those, like climate change and industrial development, that are virtually guaranteed to become more severe in the future.
The time to act is now.