Countries urged to reject U.S. ban on polar bear trade

A U.S. proposal to ban the international trade of polar bear products should be rejected, according to the secretariat of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species.

Signatories to endangered species convention to vote on proposal in March

A U.S. proposal to ban the international trade of polar bear products should be rejected, according to the secretariat of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

The secretariat is recommending that the 175 countries that have signed CITES vote against the U.S. proposal, which calls for polar bears to be reclassified as a species threatened with extinction.

If the polar bear is reclassified under CITES, it would effectively ban all commercial sale of products derived from the animals, such as hides.

"There has to be a marked decrease in the population, and we don't believe that the evidence is compelling in that regard," Stephen Nash, the secretariat's chair of capacity building, told CBC News Thursday from Geneva.

The 175 member countries, including Canada, will vote on the proposal when they meet in Doha, Qatar, on March 13-25.

Concerns with industry impact

The proposed ban has officials in Canada, especially in Nunavut, concerned about its impact on the territory's sport hunting industry.

Nash said contrary to Canada's concerns, the U.S. proposal, if passed, would not shut down the polar bear sport hunt as long as hunters do not sell their trophies.

Last month, the international wildlife trade monitor TRAFFIC said shrinking sea ice is the main threat facing polar bears, not the trade of bear products that are often harvested by aboriginal hunters, including the Inuit in Canada.

"We're talking about the effects of climate change and, essentially, concern over the amount of habitat and the quality of habitat," Nash said.

"There's actually quite a lot of debate over whether polar bear numbers are going down, or not going down, or have changed, or what has happened.

"So, the discussions at the meeting will focus on well, what is actually happening with populations of polar bear? Is there reason to be concerned? Is there reason to be concerned now?"

Northerners wage campaign

Officials with the Canadian government will be going to Doha, along with representatives from Nunavut and the Northwest Territories.

N.W.T. Environment Minister Michael Miltenberger said despite the secretariat's recommendation to reject the U.S. proposal, he is still planning to do his own lobbying of member nations to convince them to vote against the ban.

"The polar bear is an iconic symbol around the world, so it provokes a strong emotional reaction, and we got to make sure we don't let emotion rule the day," Miltenberger said.

Officials with Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., the territory's Inuit land-claims organization, says it's preparing an information campaign to convince countries to reject the U.S. proposal.

"You never know until we get there and the day that they vote for or against," said Gabriel Nirlungayuk, Nunavut Tunngavik's wildlife director.

Nirlungayuk said he has heard the European Union might be siding with the United States, but that still leaves many countries his organization can try to sway.

"There are 100 other countries that we will need to reach out and hopefully convince them that the polar bear population is not in trouble," he said.

He also noted the recommendation from TRAFFIC and other major organizations, such as the Polar Bear Specialist Group, saying there is no need to ban the trade of polar bear products.

The U.S. needs two-thirds of the CITES membership to vote in favour of the proposal in order for it to pass.

With files from Patricia Bell