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January 29, 2010

A Proposal for Polar Bear Protection

Control of international commercial trade is a necessary course of action

Humane Society International

  • There are only 20,000-25,000 left. Veer

  • On thin ice. jrphoto6/iStockphoto

Update: On March 18, 2010, CITES parties failed to support the U.S. proposal to increase protection for polar bears.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) will meet this March to discuss a proposal to ban the international trade in polar bear products by listing the species on Appendix I. Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) are the Arctic's top predators and the largest land carnivore. These magnificent creatures are threatened by global warming, which is literally melting their habitat. They are also killed for commercial purposes, their body parts, including skins which are traded as rugs, are sold to the highest bidder. The parts of more than 300 bears are traded internationally for commercial purposes every year. An Appendix I listing would not prohibit hunting of polar bears by native subsistence hunters or export of polar bear "trophies," contrary to claims made by some stakeholders (though it would impose a requirement to set internationally acceptable quotas), but it would ban commercial trade in skins and other parts.

The polar bear is considered a marine mammal. They are the largest of the bear species and can be easily identified by their all-white coat. One of the more distinctive characteristics of polar bears is that they have partially webbed forepaws. This adaptation gives them the ability to swim 60 miles or more at a time. In addition to their aptitude for swimming, polar bears move quickly and easily over the ice, sometimes traveling up to 2,500 miles during their seasonal migrations. Female polar bears generally reproduce every three to four years, only producing two to three cubs at a time. These cubs suffer high mortality rates which lead to an overall low reproductive rate. That means the polar bear is especially slow to recover from depletion. Polar bears depend on high adult survival to maintain their numbers; hunting of adults whether for sport, subsistence or commercial trade negatively impacts the species' ability to survive.

Dispelling a myth

A common misconception about polar bears is that they prey on penguins. But this is impossible! Polar bears exist only in the northern hemisphere, and penguins exist only in the southern hemisphere. In fact, polar bears in the wild live entirely within five countries: Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Norway (Svalbard), the Russian Federation and the United States. It is estimated that only 20,000 to 25,000 wild polar bears remain and the number is decreasing.

More protections needed

Studies have shown that effects of climate change are already having impacts on the long term survival of the polar bear. Polar bears are completely dependent on sea ice, which they use for hunting prey, reproduction and movement. Several climate models predict a complete loss of summer sea ice in about 30 years, and some experts have concluded that polar bears will not survive this loss. The U.S. Geological Survey, using these climate models, has predicted that the global population of polar bears will decline by 71 percent in the next 45 years. As a result, the U.S. listed the species as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act in 2008, which among other things halted the importation of polar bear trophies by American sport hunters. They are also currently listed on Appendix II of CITES, which means that polar bear parts and products can be traded as long as the trade is not harmful to the survival of the species. Regardless of these protections, international trade in polar bear parts and products is exacerbating the devastating impact that climate change is already having on the polar bear. Control of international trade, which will have an increasingly greater negative effect on the species as populations decline, is a necessary course of action.

The proposal

A proposal to be considered at the upcoming CITES meeting would transfer the polar bear from CITES Appendix II to Appendix I, which prohibits all international commercial trade in the listed species. Appendix I designation would mean that countries agree to prohibit international trade for primarily commercial purposes and thus ensure that international trade will not contribute to the ongoing decrease in polar bear numbers. This uplisting will not affect native subsistence hunting or use of polar bears. With polar bear populations becoming more vulnerable by the day due to climate change, trade in their parts should not be permitted at all. This proposal will help to move these charismatic bears off of the fast track to extinction.