A cold day with little comfort for polar bears

CNN International spoke with the author just after the vote at CITES in Bangkok, Thailand.

After years of planning, months of strategizing, weeks of intense activity and over two and a half hours watching vigorous debate by countries around the world yesterday, I witnessed the Parties at CITES vote on the future of polar bears.  And it was disappointing to say the least.  Actually devastating and shocking would be more accurate.

The first issue to be voted on was the EU amendment to the polar bear proposal which was supported by just one range country, Norway. This EU amendment did absolutely nothing to protect polar bears and served largely only to distract delegates from the discussion of whether or not commercial trade in polar bears should stop.

The EU amendment was easily defeated by a 3 to 1 margin.

Then there was a pause before the real crux of the matter was decided.

Every delegate in the room had heard from someone from the polar bear coalition – a group with more than twenty different animal welfare and wildlife conservation organizations-- trying to show them the evidence that a vote to stop the trade in polar bear parts was the right vote to nudge the chances of survival for polar bears just a little higher.

But, it was not to be.

The US proposal to uplist polar bears from Appendix II to Appendix I, thereby effectively banning international commercial trade in polar bear parts, costing the lives of some 400 of the magnificent creatures every year, was defeated. 

The final vote count was 38 in favor of more protection - 42 against more protection and 46 countries abstaining from voting altogether. The number of abstentions was high because the EU, once its own proposal had not succeeded, had to withdraw according to its own rules.

Fortunately, even after a shocking defeat like this, the International Fund for Animal Welfare will continue its commitment to speak out against cruel and unsustainable wildlife trade practices, for polar bears, and other exploited animals around the globe.

Today, one day after the disastrous vote, the polar bear coalition gathered again and analyzed the verdict to consider lessons learned in this campaign, as well as what steps are available moving forward to help the imperiled polar bear.

On the topic of the polar bear coalition I need to take a moment and thank the tremendously talented conservationists at IFAW, Humane Society International, Natural Resources Defense Council, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the many other organizations represented in the coalition, that I’ve worked closely with over the past two years on this issue.

Animal welfare battles can be tough going - there are few true victories and many defeats. However with these incredibly dedicated and passionate people in the coalition, we were able to move the ball further down the field for polar bear conservation.  And we did it with a tremendous spirit and camaraderie that will make it that much easier to pick up the banner again and continue to fight for polar bears.

If I had a crystal ball, I would say the team working on behalf of polar bears will help place the issue back on the agenda at the next CITES CoP in three years, and if we aren’t successful then, there will be another CoP after that. Polar bear habitat is rapidly disappearing and Canada has consistently put short-term economic gains above long-term conservation solutions, so it is more than likely the situation will only continue to get worse over the coming years.

We know change takes time and we take heart in the huge steps we've already made.

Three years ago Russia – a critical range state for the polar bear-- voted against this same proposal. Now they are a staunch ally standing shoulder to shoulder with the US using their world renowned polar bear scientists to support this vital effort for the wellbeing of the species.  And we won’t be waiting three years to help polar bears either – there are venues outside of CITES and opportunities in all polar bear range countries to work with our new allies and our resourceful partners to continue fighting on behalf of this animal.  I have no doubt that we will be able to marshal our forces again, and focus our energy on bringing the polar bear the vital protections that it needs to ensure its future survival.

-- JF

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