A Nation Stands Alone: Canada’s Refusal to Ban the Sale of Polar Bear Parts

On March 3 the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Conference will take place in Bangkok, and all sides are gearing up for a battle that will define the way polar bear conservation issues are dealt with. American conservationists propose that polar bear parts be treated in the same way as ivory, thus banning the sale of the parts internationally. Canada, on the other hand, is the only country that still refuses to support this ban.

The United States claims that polar bear hunting is further harming the already fragile population of the species. Meanwhile, the Canadian Inuit population accuses the Americans of dragging the whole world into a political bandwagon that will not bear any fruit. Is there perhaps some truth to this? Is Canada justified in blocking a ban that could save the polar bear?

Sarah Uhlemann, one of the lawyers responsible for tabling the petition to CITES, doesn’t think so. She is quoted saying, “The commission found that we had a sufficient allegation and provided sufficient documentation of the violation that we can move forward in this process.”

The petition, filed in November 2011, alleges that Canadian officials ignored the most recent science on climate change and the loss of Arctic sea ice when they ruled last year against changing the status of the bear from “special concern” to “threatened,” which would rule out hunting. It also says that the Tory government had already broken its own laws by being more than three years late in filing a mandatory management plan for the Arctic predators. The petition concludes by suggesting that hunting quotas for the bears set by Inuit co-management boards are unsustainable for some populations.

In addition, Uhlemann accused Canada of minimizing the effects that hunting has on the polar bear population. Coupled with the increasingly shrinking ice platform that the bears use as a hunting ground, the bear numbers could reduce by two-thirds by the year 2050. The Polar Bear Specialist Group says there are between 20,000 and 25,000 bears in the world in 19 different population groups, and with 600-800 bears being killed legally in Canada per year there is growing concern.

Why is Canada so adamant about the issue of banning the sale of polar bear parts? The one thing the crusaders have forgotten is that the Inuit population of Canada is heavily dependent upon bear hunting for their livelihoods. For years, the Inuit have struggled for recognition and a voice in Canadian politics, which they have finally been given. Failure to block this petition would put them back in this endeavour. According to Terry Audla, President of Inuit Tapiriiti Kantaami (ITK), the threat of extinction that the polar bears face has been gravely exaggerated. He makes the argument that polar bear sightings in the Hudson Bay area have risen in the last few years to the extent where the people are now facing a risk from the bears.

However, activists argue that the polar bears are forced to move into the human populated areas due to the depletion of their hunting grounds. Although this maybe a valid point, it does bring to light the real issue that is affecting the polar bears. The major problem is not the hunting, it is the climate change that is robbing them of their safe haven.

Audla once again takes a strong stance on this: “Inuit have been saying for many years that climate change is affecting our Arctic and that the world’s leaders and decision-makers need to mitigate emissions to tackle this issue head on. We are looking for these real solutions to take shape at the international level so that our future can be better secured. However, Polar Bear researchers, animal and environmental campaigners, the tourism industry, and policy makers are climbing on board the icon-under-threat approach to generate opportunities, interest, funding, and business to somehow address climate change. I for one can see through this veil and say that a trade ban on Polar Bear will not address climate change. It will only attack the livelihoods of communities in the Arctic that struggle day to day to make a living.”

Audla’s words cannot be ignored. If an effort is not made to combat global warming then a ban on the hunting will barely make a dent in the problem. Even with the ban on commercial hunting the option to hunt the bears for sport would still be open. On the other hand, the Inuit population would have to combat a huge vacuum in their revenue base.

Figures compiled by the US-based Natural Resources Defense Council suggest the yearly number of polar bear skins offered at auction increased 375 percent between 2007 and 2012, from 40 to 150. As well, the average price doubled to about $5,200 for a single skin. With a profit this large, is it just wishful thinking to hope that the ban will ever have any effect? Either way, on March 3 the CITES conference comes down to making a choice between preserving a people or a species.