Animal rights groups manipulated data on polar bear hunt: researchers
"We need more nuanced conversations and media coverage about polar bear conservation"
Animal rights groups misled the public during a 2013 campaign to ban all trade in polar bear products, say two researchers from Canada and Britain.
Douglas Clark of the University of Saskatchewan’s school of environment and sustainability and Martina Tyrell, a geographer from the University of Exeter, looked at media coverage of a March 2013 proposal that, if adopted, could have severely limited or prohibited trade in polar bear parts under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, better knowns as CITES.
The researchers found campaigns by animal welfare organizations targeted polar bear hunting, while largely ignoring the threat posed to polar bears by the loss of sea ice habitat due to human-induced climate change.
“The data was manipulated to grossly conflate the international trade in bears,” said Clark, whose research was published in the latest issue of the science journal Global Environmental Change.
“They also presented a well-managed Inuit subsistence hunt as a for-profit enterprise [while] indigenous rights guaranteed in land claims allow Inuit to hunt polar bears,” Clark said in a Jan. 21 University of Saskatchewan news release. “Under their management, the hunt also injects much-needed income into Inuit communities in Canada’s North.”
The U.S. and Russia proposed moving polar bears to an Appendix I classification at the Bangkok convention last spring.
The proposal, which was defeated, would have banned almost all trade in goods made from polar bears.
But Inuit subsistence hunting and a limited sport hunt do not pose a threat to the polar bear population, Clark said.
By analyzing news coverage on the subject last year, the researchers suggest that data on the commercial polar bear was “oversimplified,” while the subject of climate change-induced habitat loss was de-emphasized.
Both researchers say climate change poses a much greater threat to polar bears, if any.
Clark’s study cited one letter from the British branch of Humane Society International that was quoted in a number of media reports. It suggested tens of thousands of polar bears were globally traded over the last decade, while bear hunting continues to be on the rise.
But a quick look at Nunavut, where the vast majority of Canadian polar bear hunting takes place, shows that the territory’s quota has averaged fewer that 500 bears a year for the last five years.
In their paper, the researchers also say they saw little reference to ongoing and long-term polar bear conservation management practices and the potential economic and cultural impacts of a CITES ban on indigenous Inuit communities in the Canadian Arctic.
While the US-Russian-backed proposal to ban the polar bear trade was not voted on by CITES delegates last year, the researchers expect the issue to come up again.
“If we are going to come up with effective and appropriate multilateral conservation policies that can be acted upon and supported by the public, we need more nuanced conversations and media coverage about polar bear conservation,” Clark said.