Move to ban international trade in polar bear products fails at CITES meeting
"It's a proud moment for the Inuit"
(Updated March 8 at 4:20 p.m.)
Terry Audla, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, was eager to share the good news from Bangkok, Thailand March 7.
That’s when the 178 national delegates to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, rejected a proposal from the United States to ban international trade in polar bear products: 38 voted in favour, 42 against, with 46 abstaining.
“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,” Audla said after the vote on the proposal, known as Proposal Three.
The US proposal wanted CITES to up-list the polar bear from its Appendix II to Appendix I, citing a “marked decline in the population size in the wild, which has been inferred or projected on the basis of a decrease in area of habitat and a decrease in quality of habitat.”
CITES Appendix II lists species that are not necessarily now threatened with extinction but that may become so unless trade is closely controlled.
The proposal to up-list polar bears to CITES Appendix I would have put polar bears in a category reserved for the world’s most immediately endangered species, such as tigers, gorillas, jaguars, rhinos and panda bears, which are threatened with extinction.
Such an up-listing would also have banned all international trade in polar bear products such as polar bear pelts, claws and teeth.
Canada, Norway and Denmark opposed the proposal. Meanwhile, the European Union’s 27 member nations tried to broker a compromise proposal that would have seen further study take place before a ban. It also would have called for quotas, “removing the ability of Inuit to determine their own quotas.”
When US and Russia rejected that amendment, which then failed, the EU decided to abstain as a block from the vote on Proposal Three. Its delegates were later joined by those from 19 other countries , so that the final tally of those abstaining reached 46.
A two-thirds majority of CITES’ voting members would have been needed for Proposal Three to pass.
The proposal to up-list the polar bear marks the second time the US government has proposed to up-list polar bears. The first move was defeated in 2010.
CITES member states can reopen the debate if they can point to an irregularity in some matter of procedure, ITK said.
But if no country challenges the decision by the end of the conference on March 11, discussion on a possible trade ban on polar bears won’t come up again until 2016.
Audla spoke to the CITES meeting about Proposal Three before the vote, saying Proposal Three was not about protecting polar bears.
“A vote in favour of this proposal will have no effect whatsoever on hunting quotas,” he said. “That’s right. Our hunt is a legal harvest and will continue regardless of an up-listing.
“But if you choose to vote in favour of this proposal, you are choosing to significantly reduce the livelihoods of Canadian Inuit. Your decision will have a direct and immediate impact on our lives.”
Audla said Inuit practice sustainable harvesting and work to ensure the long-term viability of the resource.
“For those who do not know, Canadian Inuit are international leaders in the protection and joint management of polar bears. We are in the best position to manage this resource,” he said.
Audla also spoke against the EU compromise amendment, saying that it did not “address an attack by groups who have no respect and no regard for the traditional practice of sustainable use, and who do not care about the peoples who will be affected.”
Nunavut MLA Tagak Curley, a member of the Canadian government delegation, told those at CITES that his people had “a unique relation with polar bears.”
“Modern management has been in place for more than 40 years. During this time the population of polar bears in Canada has more than doubled,” he said. “Our identity as Inuit would be weaker without the polar bear. We are connected to the polar bears in a very special way.”
After the vote, the US delegation said it was disappointed that its trade ban proposal did not pass.
“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,” the deputy Secretary of the Interior, David J. Hayes, said in a prepared statement.
Some animal protection and environmental groups also decried the failure of Proposal Three.
“The world once again had a chance to take action to safeguard polar bear populations and failed. Polar bears were handed the same appalling fate at the last CITES meeting and the decision is even more disheartening this time around,” said Jeff Flocken, North American regional director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare “Each passing year that this iconic species is not protected to the fullest, is another year closer to losing the polar bear forever. Exposing them to hunting will drive them to extinction.”
The Center for Biological Diversity said that unless the world moves quickly to combat climate change, two-thirds of the world’s polar bears will be gone by 2050, and added pressure from unsustainable Canadian hunting will only hasten the extinction of this spectacular animal.”
That’s despite opinion from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, a CITES advisor, which said to qualify for up-listing the polar bear population, among other things, would have to decline to 5,000 animals and lose 50 per cent of its numbers within 45 years.
The IUCN said the “most likely decline” during that period would be more than 30 per cent, but less than 50 per cent.
Canada, which puts the current global population size of polar bears at 20,000 to 25,000, says polar bears do not have a small wild population and no marked decline has been observed.
“Thanks in large part to Nunavut’s wildlife co-management system, polar bear numbers in Canada have increased dramatically since the 1970’s,” said James Arreak, Nunavut’s environment minister, who is also in Bangkok. “This represents the second time we have stood firmly against a proposed up-listing that would only serve to hurt Nunavummiut, and do nothing to conserve polar bears.”
The decision to oppose the US proposal confirms that the “CITES nations recognize Nunavut’s successful management of our polar bear populations.”
“The Government of Nunavut will continue to protect and promote the best interests of Nunavummiut, and the territory’s polar bear populations,” Arreak said in a March 7 GN news release.
Among others pleased by the vote results: the Qikiqtani Inuit Association.
“The hard work of everyone involved at CITES is greatly appreciated,” said QIA president Okalik Eegeesiak. “It’s through their hard work and commitment that they were able to
make an effective argument at this international conference on how unnecessary this ban is and how devastating it would have been to Inuit.”