Inuit can keep trading polar bear skins

Posted by Emma Woollacott

A US-led proposal to ban the trade in polar bears and their parts has been defeated at an international meeting.

At the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in Thailand was persuaded by the arguments of Inuit groups, who said they needed the revenue to survive.

Canada is the only country in the world to allow trade in polar bears, with around 300 skins sold for rugs each year. They fetch an average of $2,000 to $5,000, with some prize specimens topping $12,000.

"As polar bear hide prices have skyrocketed, more bears are being offered at auction, and hunting levels have increased," says Dan Ashe, head of the US delegation, in a statement.  "A CITES Appendix-I listing would have ensured that commercial trade would not compound the threats of habitat loss that are facing this species."

But Inuit groups successfully argued that polar bear populations are currently fairly high, and that their hunting was sustainable.

"Both Proposal 3 and this EU proposal target Inuit who have worked their entire lives to conserve polar bear populations for themselves and for future generations. We’re being punished for being responsible and for conserving this resource prudently, conservatively and sustainably," Terry Audla, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami," told the conference.

"Your decision will affect our lives. It is a direct attack on our livelihoods. It will affect our ability to buy the basic necessities of life, and clothe our children warmly."

While polar bears aren't currently threatened, conservationists are concerned that they soon may be, particularly as global warming shrinks their territory. According to the Polar Bear Specialist Group, 15 of 19 subpopulations are declining or hard to monitor.

"We are obviously disappointed that the CITES membership failed to give greater protection to polar bears by limiting permissible trade in polar bear pelts and other body parts," says US Deputy Secretary of the Interior David J. Hayes.  

"We will continue to work with our partners to reduce the pressure that trade in polar bear parts puts on this iconic arctic species, even as we take on the longer term threat that climate change poses to polar bears."