Anti-Hunting Groups Strike Out with Polar Bear Science
Something big is missing from the CITES agenda at the Conference of the Parties (CoP17) this month in Johannesburg. In an early win for Safari Club and for the first time in years of debate, polar bears will not be discussed on the CITES floor.
Fighting anti-hunting groups on public perception of polar bear science has been a long battle. At the CoP16 in Bangkok three years ago, polar bears were the symbol of a so-called “imperiled” species. Anti-hunting groups dressed up in furry white costumes with life jackets and painted a doomsday picture of the last polar bear drifting away on a melting ice floe. Pushed by HSUS, among others, the United States proposed to uplist the polar bear from CITES Appendix II to Appendix I status.
But, the CITES Parties roundly rejected the United States’ proposal. Safari Club actively intervened to explain that polar bears did not meet the CITES biological and trade criteria for an Appendix I listing. The previous conference also rejected a similar United States proposal, orchestrated by HSUS and friends, to uplist the polar bear to Appendix I. Both uplisting attempts were purely political and lacked scientific merit.
Climate change does pose a long-term challenge for polar bear conservation. The loss of Arctic sea ice, hunting ground for the largest terrestrial predator, is an emerging threat. Still, the best available science reveals that the overall polar bear population remains at historical highs and occupies its entire historic range. In addition, no sound science or analysis shows that international trade of polar bear parts is threatening the species.
The IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group, composed of the world’s leading Arctic scientists, has not changed the polar bear’s status since the species was first categorized as Vulnerable in 1982. Today, after the most recent 2015 reassessment, the IUCN estimates that there are 26,000 bears in 19 recognized subpopulations across their range. Of the subpopulations with sufficient data to determine trends, seven are stable or increasing and three are declining.
An Appendix I listing would have severely restrained the ability of indigenous people to trade in polar bear parts and sustainably use the species as a wildlife resource. The Inuit and other Arctic peoples depend on polar bear hunting for subsistence, utilizing the whole bear. Polar bears are a vital part of Arctic culture and spirituality, and are used in decorative clothing, crafts and tools.
Hunting by non-natives is a critical source of income for isolated Arctic communities in Canada, where populations are well managed. This income provides much needed revenue for these remote communities. A rigorous system based on traditional knowledge and science establishes a sustainable quota for each of the local communities, which accounts for all harvest. Non-native hunters must also hunt with Inuit dog sledding guides, keeping that Arctic tradition alive. Although the Endangered Species Act (ESA) listing of the species in 2008 led to an import ban in the United States, which discouraged American hunters from traveling to Canada, hunting remains an important source of income.
Based on their continued efforts to undermine the indigenous people who have shared the Arctic with polar bears for thousands of years, anti-hunting extremists have no regard for human livelihoods and have disregarded the science on polar bears and the impacts of trade. In the past, their efforts have drawn attention away from other species that deserve protection by CITES.
Meanwhile, hunting continues to have conservation benefits for the livelihoods of Arctic communities and polar bear populations. For this year’s CITES CoP17, science has prevailed on polar bear policy and has maintained the integrity of CITES as a supporter of sustainable use.
The CITES CoP17 begins on September 24, 2016. Safari Club will be updating you live from South Africa on other sustainable use issues, including African lions, wood bison, cape mountain zebra, African elephants, Eastern and Western tur, and hunting trophies.