Canada develops new polar bear tracking system to fight smugglers

A pilot project, in which Nunavut conservation officers are inserting microchips in polar bear hides, could help international efforts to stop wildlife trafficking.

Microchips, inserted into polar bear hides, show the animals were harvested legally and sustainably

An enforcement officer scans a polar bear to read information from an embedded microchip. The data ensures the bear was harvested legally and allows the buyer to know where it was taken. (Submitted by Environment and Climate Change Canada)

A new Canadian pilot project which sees microchips inserted in polar bear hides is aiming to help stop the trafficking of wildlife and protect the country's reputation of having sustainable and well-managed hunts. 

This year, local conservation officers in a number of Nunavut and Labrador communities began using the microchips, which allow potential buyers and wildlife enforcement officers to find out where the bear was hunted. 

"This is something that we're really excited about," said Sheldon Jordan, the director general of the wildlife enforcement division of Environment and Climate Change Canada. 
Sheldon Jordan is the director general of the wildlife enforcement division at Environment and Climate Change Canada. (Environment and Climate Change Canada)

"We've tried it in a number of communities across Northern Canada and it seems to be working quite well."

The microchips, combined with back-up DNA samples, will make it possible for people to see if the bear is from a population that is allowed to be exported, at any point in the supply chain. 

As a bonus, the data will help wildlife enforcement analyze where bears are being hunted, so they can adjust management practices. 

Wildlife trafficking exploding worldwide

Over the past decade, Jordan, who is also the chair of Interpol's wildlife crimes working group, says wildlife trafficking has "exploded," mainly driven by demand from East Asia. 

That might seem far removed from Northern Canada, but Jordan says when the price of elephant ivory went up, so did the value of narwhal tusks.

Between 2009 and 2013, the price of polar bear pelts quadrupled, said Jordan.

"When the price goes up, there's an incentive for some people, especially middlemen, to try to go around the rules, to try to smuggle out polar bear skins, which are not allowed to be exported." 

Jordan says it's not common for traffickers to be caught breaking the law in Canada, but enforcement officers still need to be "ahead of the curve." 

"If they're not legally traded or legally exported, it doesn't matter if the harvest is legal or not," he said. "People in the rest of the world are going to say that Canada can't be trusted."

Process could help African elephants

Jordan says the pilot program has been a big success so far, and there are already plans to expand it to a few communities in Yukon and the Northwest Territories this fall. 
Smugglers attempted to illegally transport three polar bear hides in 2013, when they were intercepted by enforcement officers. The federal government used the bears to fine-tune the microchip process. (Environment and Climate Change Canada)

Eventually he hopes it will be used across Nunavut and in northern Quebec.

"There are people in small communities in central Africa who are dependant on elephant for trade and for tourism," said Jordan.

"Why not [try] what we've tried here in the North, in our small communities, let's try and see if we can transfer that to a little bit of the rest of the world to try and protect small communities elsewhere."

The process is relatively inexpensive, and tests done on confiscated hides show the microchip stays put, even after the hide is tanned and mounted. 

"Really what we want is sustainable trade," said Jordan. "That way we protect the good guys, we stop the bad guys."