At Moscow polar bear forum, EU must work to end international commercial trade
At an international polar bear forum this week marking the 40th anniversary of the “Agreement on the Conservation of the Polar Bear”, the IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare) called on the EU to go further in addressing the threats polar bears face today, by addressing climate change and corresponding loss of polar bear habitat, and by banning the international commercial trade in polar bear parts.
The 1973 Agreement – a treaty signed by all five polar bear range countries at a time when polar bear populations were at risk of disappearing due to uncontrolled hunting – focuses on threats of that time, including unregulated exploitation, illegal trade, pollution, and human conflict. And while some of the greatest threats have changed since then, the need for conservation of the species is just as pressing as it was 40 years ago.
Sonja Van Tichelen, IFAW EU Regional Director said, “The EU played a disastrous role at the last international meeting to discuss the trade in polar bear parts. It is time for the EU to make amends by addressing the threats polar bears face and stopping the trade in polar bear skins.”
An IFAW delegation at the Polar Bear Forum is one of only five non-governmental organizations joining government representatives from all of the range countries at the forum, which will be hosted by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.
Dr. Masha Vorontsova, IFAW Regional Director for Russia and CIS, has been an influential advisor to the Russian government on polar bear conservation policies and anti-poaching measures. “We need to meet these threats head on instead of expecting the 40-year-old agreement to do so adequately,” said Vorontsova. “The USSR was the first country to raise concern on the wellbeing and survival of polar bears. All hunting for polar bears was forbidden as early as 1957. Nowadays, the Russian government has shown great leadership in hosting this conference. Now we need a declaration for polar bear protection that will address the changing dynamics of the threats they face.”
There are an estimated 20,000 – 25,000 polar bears globally; approximately 15,000 live in Canada.
“The living symbol of the Arctic is under the gun – both figuratively in the case of climate change, and literally in the case of poaching and over-exploitation for trophies and parts,” said Azzedine Downes, CEO of IFAW. “There is no arguing that climate change is a significant factor in its imperilment, which is why we must step up efforts to protect the species by addressing climate change. However, tackling climate change will be neither fast nor easy, therefore in the meantime, we must also alleviate other threats to polar bears that can be more readily addressed. Overexploitation of the species for trophies and commercial sale of skins and other products is one such threat, which is unnecessary and can be fixed through policy changes.”
Earlier this year, IFAW Russia conducted a study to monitor the Russian language Internet for advertisements of sale and purchase of a number of CITES-listed animal derivatives. It is worth noting that although polar bear hunting has been prohibited in Russia since 1957, Russia allows the importation of polar bear skins and their parts when accompanied by a CITES certificate. Unfortunately, in a month’s span, a total of 75 advertisements were found for selling/buying polar bear parts and derivatives, mostly pelts and carpets made of pelts. Some read “Need spare parts of polar bear. Head down to ears, possible with ears” and “Stuffed polar bear head. Trophy pelt. Imported from Germany in 1945. Only head remains.” There was also one for a sofa upholstered entirely of polar bear skin with intact paws at the end of the armrests. The pelts of the polar bears imported from Canada are offered at increasingly high price (up to 2.000.000 rbl, about 64,000 CAD, as of November, 2013).
The availability of polar bear skins and their parts is not the only thing on the rise. Demand and the amount wealthy collectors are willing to pay for dead polar bears are also increasing. This summer in Canada, a pelt went at auction for $22,000 CAD, an astounding 50 percent increase compared to a price paid for a similar product the previous year. “This exhibits a dangerous “get it before it’s gone” mentality, where scarcity – real, perceived, or anticipated - increases demand and willingness to pay,” said Vorontsova.
Given the growing demand for polar bears and their parts, and the uncertainty of the species future in the wild, IFAW continues to support transferring the polar bear from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora Appendix II to the increased protections of Appendix I. This type of protection would ban the international sale of dead polar bears, thereby addressing the growing international market and alleviating a threat to an already struggling species.
“IFAW supports the application of the scientific precautionary principle to the polar bear’s plight,” says Downes. “We know polar bears are in trouble, so the only sensible thing to do is alleviate all the current or possible threats to their well-being that exist.”
There are five range states for polar bears: The United States, Norway, Russia, Greenland/Denmark, and Canada. Canada, however, is the only country that still allows its polar bears to be killed and sold on the global market. Thus, the international trade in polar bears that is at issue for CITES Parties is predominantly trade in polar bears from populations in Canada, where 13 of the 19 polar bear populations are found.