A Complicated Conversation on Conservation

As the 16th Convention of the Parties  (COP)  (meeting) of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, commonly referred to as CITES got underway in Thailand on March 3rd, several key issues were to be discussed by the member countries.

One of the most heavily publicized was a proposed ‘International Ban’ on polar bear trade that would make it illegal to sell skin, skulls, claws, and teeth from the bears; a ban which the United States and Russia, both home to polar bear populations, strongly supported.

Yes,  two countries who’ve historically differed on fundamental  economic theory, raced to build bigger and better nuclear weapons and whose recent  quarrels included a volatile adoption-ban, came together to support the protection of polar bears. If such polar opposites (pardon the pun) were able to cooperate surely approving the ban was a done deal?

But, on March 7th the proposed international ban failed 38 for, 42 against, with 46 abstentions. Among the countries who were most vocal in opposition to the ban was Canada.

Odd Alliances

In the realm of geopolitics, the likelihood of Russia and the United States allying against Canada is somewhat odd.

Canada however, does have something that neither Russia nor the United States do; a relatively large Inuit population who rely on polar bears as a source of income. Canada, is also the only country that allows polar bear trophy hunting. A single polar bear hunt currently runs about $40,000 to 45,000.

According to a March 2012 government update on the economy of Nunavut, the Canadian territory where many polar bear hunts take place, the current “harvesting” (hunting, fishing etc.) economy brings in about $40 million annually.

Yet a 2009 report “The Economics of Polar Bear Trophy Hunting in Canada,”  (sponsored in part by the Humane Society International and the International Fund for Animal Welfare) stated that economic benefits gained from trophy hunts are too concentrated to make a significant economic difference. Only about one third of Inuit territories annually hold trophy hunts and the practice contributes only marginally to the economy of Nunavut, according to the report.

Photo by Vadim Balakin.
Photo by Vadim Balakin.

Traditional Right?

A major debate centers to the right of the native Inuit people in Canada where 60-80 percent of polar bears live and whether native access to polar bears would be prohibited or reduced if polar bears were “upgraded” to Appendix I.

A major consideration in proposing the ban is climate change, which has the potential to affect polar bears more quickly and more dramatically. Most importantly, melting sea ice is decimating polar bear habitat with a 2005 estimate of a 30 percent decline in population in 35 to 50 years.  In light of this evidence, continued hunting introduces unnecessary stress and hardship on the species.

Inuit activists have lobbied hard, citing that the loss of revenue from polar bear products would be crippling to their economy.  Furthermore, limits and regulations placed on hunting already ensure that kills occur at responsible and sustainable levels. (For discussion prompts on this issue see here)

So here is where we must ask a tougher question. Is it fair to restrict Inuit access to polar bears?  I would say for traditional uses no, but how then do you define a traditional use? Asking Inuit to rely on centuries old equipment for instance in hunts ( like dog sleds over snow mobiles) is unfair when others are allowed every modern convenience for their hunts.

However, I would argue a non-native hunter paying $40,000 and flying in for a 10-day adventure does not meet any sort of “traditional”criteria, but Inuit activists claim it is unfair to deny their territory the economic benefits such hunts bring.

Photo by Eli Matas.
Photo by Eli Matas.

It would seem in many ways that the debate raises more questions: Are these hunts an irreplaceable source of income for many Inuit, or are the solidified interests of a few groups skewing the picture? Is there such a thing as sustainable hunting levels for a species that is projected to be in dire condition by mid-century if the planet warms at current rates ?

Ultimately, and what may be hard for some conservationists, is that in many cases there is more than one side to an issue. It seems there is a growing awareness that with global warming, cultures across the world will soon face adaptation and the imminent loss of centuries old traditions. If we don’t act to address THIS fundamental issue, polar bears will not be the only thing we lose.

Written by Emily Connor, National Geographic Education Intern, Spring 2013

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