A proposal by the United States to ban cross-border trade in polar bears and their parts was defeated Thursday at an international meeting of conservationists, marking a victory for Canada's Inuit over their big neighbour to the south.
Delegates at the triennial meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, rejected Washington's proposal to change the status of the polar bear from a species whose trade is merely regulated, not banned.
The proposal fell far short of the two-thirds needed to pass, garnering 38 votes in favour, 42 against and 46 abstentions. A similar proposal was defeated three years ago at the last CITES meeting.
While support for most of the meeting's 70 proposals covering the trade in other species fell along predictable lines, the U.S. proposal made for some odd bedfellows. Russia endorsed Washington's proposal, which was also supported by a cluster of animal humane societies. Canada was joined in opposition by some of the larger conservation organizations, including the CITES Secretariat and the Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network, better known as TRAFFIC.
The worldwide population of polar bears is estimated to be 20,000 to 28,000, with about two-thirds in Canada.
The United States had contended that climate change was dangerously shrinking the bears' habitat, and that pre-emptive measures were needed to save them.
Inuit welcome the news
The Inuit, on whose lands many of the animals dwell, contended that polar bear populations were not declining, and that Canada was regulating the hunting of the bears in sustainable numbers. The group said their way of life and livelihoods would be threatened by a ban.
"What it means to the Inuit people is that it is confirmation that the Inuit are managing the polar bear in a very responsible manner and that the world agrees with us, and it's a proud moment for the Inuit," Terry Audla, head of an Inuit rights group, said after the vote.
Audla earlier contended that the threatened ban was only the latest action that failed to heed the needs of the Inuit community.
"The world bans the seal trade, not based on science, but based on their bleeding hearts, right? Because 'it's so cruel,"' he said. "But we've lived off the seals for centuries, and the population is quite healthy. So that was taken away from us. Now the ivory trade, we have the walrus tusks and the narwhal tusks, and that trade was important to us as well. That was taken away from us. Now they're saying the polar bear should be taken away from us as well."
After hearing the news, an Inuit elder invited anyone claiming to be experts on polar bears to come north to study the bears in their habitats.
"Ever since I was young, I have hunted and live with polar bears," said 64-year-old Simon Idlout of Resolute Bay, Nunavut.
Idlout said he’s happy about the decision made in Bangkok.
Idlout said people who think polar bears will disappear because of shrinking sea ice are wrong — he said the bears simply don’t hunt on ice.
"I have seen polar bears catch seals out in open water on several occasions."
What worries Idlout is the impact of mining exploration on polar bears.
"Helicopters are to blame for them coming to communities. They are losing their hearings and going deaf," he said.
The U.S. delegation said it was disappointed that the trade ban proposal had failed.
"We will continue to work with our partners to reduce the pressure that trade in polar bear parts puts on this iconic arctic species, even as we take on the longer-term threat that climate change poses to polar bears," Deputy Secretary of the Interior David J. Hayes said in a prepared statement.
"Limiting commercial trade in this species would have addressed a source of non-climate stress to polar bear populations and contributed to long-term recovery," said the statement from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"Each year, an average of 3,200 items made from polar bears — including skins, claws and teeth — are reported to be exported or re-exported from a range of countries. Polar bear hides sell for an average of $2,000 to $5,000, while maximum hide prices have topped $12,000."