Canadian and Inuit leaders say they're relieved that a U.S.-backed proposal to ban the international trade of polar bear parts was defeated at a UN wildlife conservation meeting in Doha, Qatar, over concerns it would hurt indigenous economies and arguments the practice did not pose a significant threat to the animals.
The proposal to reclassify the polar bear as a species threatened with extinction — effectively banning the commercial trade of polar bear hides, teeth and claws under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) — did not receive enough votes from CITES's 175 member nations to pass on Thursday.
The Americans argued that the sale of polar bear skins is compounding the loss of the animals' sea ice habitat due to climate change. There are projections that polar bear numbers, estimated at 20,000 to 25,000, could decline by two-thirds by 2050 due to habitat loss in the Arctic.
Among the CITES member countries that voted on Thursday, 48 were in favour of the U.S. motion, 62 voted against and 11 abstained. The decision pleased Canadian officials at the meeting, especially those from Nunavut, where most of Canada's polar bears are located.
"It was quite unbelievable, but at the same time, we were very happy. It seems like all the pressure was taken off," Gabriel Nirlungayuk, director of wildlife with the Inuit land-claim organization Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., told CBC News from Doha on Thursday.
"I felt like shouting and clapping, but the meeting was going on. So when we went out of the meeting room, we were very happy."
Threat from trade minimal: Canada
Canada, along with Norway and Greenland, led the opposition to the U.S. proposal. They said the threat from trade was minimal and the hunting done by aboriginal communities was critical to their economies.
Only two per cent of Canadian polar bears are internationally traded and the country strictly manages the commerce, according to Canadian officials.
"There is no doubt that action must continue to ensure the conservation of polar bears. Canada's goal is long-term survival of polar bears," Canadian representative Basile Van Havre said. "But Canada does not think the proposal is supported by facts."
Frank Pokiak, an Inuvaluit leader from the Northwest Territories, said communities in the Arctic have hunted bears for generations, mostly for meat for food and pelts for clothing and shelter. He said they hunt them in a sustainable way and would continue doing so with or without an international ban.
"We have always cared for land and the wildlife because we have a lot to lose," Pokiak told delegates in Doha. "If it wasn't for polar bears and other wildlife that we harvest, we wouldn't exist today."
Nunavut lobbied against ban
Nunavut Environment Minister Daniel Shewchuk said efforts by the territorial government, Inuit organizations and local hunters and trappers to lobby countries against the proposed ban appear to have paid off.
"As it came closer to the vote in Qatar, we knew that we had support from a lot of interested parties around the world.… I'm very proud of that," Shewchuk told CBC News in Iqaluit.
"They understand our position and Canada's position when it comes to polar bears in the world, and I think that we have done a very good job educating people to that effect."
The big white bear, the world's largest land meat-eater — known as "nanuq" to the Inuit — may be uniquely susceptible to climate change as rising temperatures fast shrink its habitat, the Arctic sea ice.
Many bears spend their whole lives on the ice, mating, giving birth and hunting for their main prey, the ringed seal. But Arctic summers may be almost free of sea ice within 30 years, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted last April.
Data available on polar bear trade shows that since the early 1990s, the market for polar bear carcasses and parts has increased. From 1992 to 2006, approximately 31,294 live polar bears, carcasses or parts were exported to 73 different countries, according to data collected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
Skins are the most popular export item, and Canada is the largest commercial exporter.
In May 2008, the U.S. classified the polar bear as a threatened species, the first with its survival at risk due to global warming. The determination made all but subsistence hunting illegal.
"We're disappointed," said Jane Lyder, the Department of Interior's deputy assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks. "But we understand that CITES is still trying to understand how to incorporate climate change into its decision making."
Inuit leader urges caution
Inuit have long argued that they have seen more polar bears, disputing claims by scientists and conservationists that the species is in decline. As well, the Nunavut government says it manages the territory's polar bear populations effectively and sustainably.
Mary Simon, president of the national Inuit group Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, said she remains cautious despite Thursday's vote because another week remains in the CITES meeting and it's possible the Americans could raise the issue again.
But conservationists criticized the vote rejecting a broader international ban, accusing countries of ignoring the plight of a bear that, for many, has become a warning symbol for global warming.
"CITES parties have turned their backs on this iconic species," said the International Fund for Animal Welfare's Jeff Flocken, whose group is part of a polar bear coalition of several environmental groups.
"Polar bears clearly meet the criteria for an uplisting to Appendix I," he said, referring to the designation that was proposed by the United States.
"Yet parties are using the fact that climate change poses to the greater long-term threat to the species as an excuse to do nothing about immediate threats hastening their decline."
Andrew Wetzler, director of NRDC's Wildlife Conservation Project, called the vote "a setback" in what otherwise has been a successful effort to protect the bear.
"It keeps some of the most important populations of polar bears squarely in the crosshairs," he said. "We will continue work to find a new way to protect polar bears from this unsustainable hunt."
However, Inuit hunters in Nunavut say they will continue to legally hunt polar bears in Canada, warning that an international ban on the trade of polar bear products would be economically devastating to them.
Polar bear hides, as well as polar bear sport-hunting packages, provide a major source of income in many remote northern communities. Polar bear hides sell for about $2,000 on average.