Environmental activists in the US and Russia have come together to push for unprecedented protection for the polar bear, hoping to stave off the decline of its already dwindling population.
With Arctic Sea ice at record low because of climate change, polar bears have been deprived of a key habitat and feeding ground. Trade in polar bears, mainly in the form of trophy skins and furs, remains legal under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), leading to the death of hundreds more each year.
Activists from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and the Human Society International (HSI) are hoping to change that by supporting government initiatives to upgrade the polar bear’s status from appendix two to one within the convention, thus banning all international commercial trade.
“The real opportunity to ban the trade is around the corner,” said Jeffrey Flocken, head of IFAW’s Washington DC office.
Activists have been lobbying officials in the US to table the so-called “uplist” proposal by Thursday, ahead of a global CITES conference early next year, but fear the US will be reluctant after a similar proposal did not pass a vote at the convention’s last meeting in Doha in 2010.
IFAW activists have also received written assurances from the Russian ministry of natural resources that it will support an initiative tabled by the US, according to a copy of the letter obtained by media. Activists hope that joint Russian-US support will help the motion receive the two-thirds vote it needs to pass inside the 176-country body.
They warned of an increasing urgency to act, following recent reports by the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado, that Arctic Sea ice had declined to record lows. At the same time, prices for polar bear skins have soared, prompting increased hunting and poaching.
“Polar bears are becoming more and more scarce, and that scarcity is driving up demand,” HSI’s Teresa Telecky said. “It’s helping drive the species towards extinction.”
At a recent auction in Canada, two polar bear pelts fetched a record US$16,475 each — about double the price at auctions five years ago. Canada is the only country that allows its polar bears to be killed and sold on international markets, something its indigenous population argue is key to their survival and livelihood.
In one Moscow shop, a large polar bear hide was going for 1.6 million roubles (US$51,000). The luxury items are most popular among buyers in Russia and China.
Multiple Russian Web sites have popped up that sell CITES certificates that indicate a legal kill under Canada’s quota, something used by many of the poachers who kill an average of 200 polar bears in Russia per year, activists said. Nearly 6,000 polar bears are believed to have been killed between 2001 and 2010, with that number increasing in the past two years, according to IFAW and HSI.
The world’s polar bear population is now estimated at around 20,000, activists said. The US Geological Survey warned in 2007 that diminishing sea ice could result in the loss of two-thirds of the world’s polar bear population within 50 years.