Polar Bears abandoned as politics wins the day

It was always likely to happen, but it’s still disappointing when the decision comes through: polar bears weren’t uplisted to Appendix 1 at CITES.

Of all the issues being debated here, this was one of the highest profile. A much loved, iconic species that we all know from cartoons, TV advertising and wildlife programmes. We were already aware that the species is under threat from global warming, with its Arctic ice home literally melting beneath its feet. But not everyone knew that a thriving hunting-export business has been operating under the radar in Canada for years.

And so to the politics. First, we had USA vs Canada – always a bitterly fought battle, though usually focused around ice hockey. The US, rightly, claimed that while environmental factors were key, hunting was a significant threat to the polar bears. Canada, obviously, disputes that – and retaliated with comments around the US’s environmental record. Also true to a point, but disguising the issue at hand.

Then we had the politics of CITES. For a while, it looked like the ‘Ayes’ might have it – big players like Russia (a polar bear range state) came down on the side of the US, as did Europe. But then it began to wobble. The rules here state that all the EU countries must be unanimous if the EU is to vote one way or another. This policy doesn’t happen anywhere else, as a majority normally carries the day, so why here? Greenland, it seems, weren’t on side – they were against the policy and were supported by Denmark.

So that scuppered the EU vote. Frustration about this was intensified as the EU then tried to suggest a compromise deal which, frankly, wasn’t worth the hot air used to announce it.

Then the final nail in the polar bears’ coffin: an impassioned plea on behalf of, and by, Inuit chiefs, whose tribes are responsible for much of the hunting that takes place. They claimed that a vote to protect the polar bears would take away their livelihoods, and was an attack on them as an indigenous people.

The first of these arguments is a fair point to make, but we don’t agree: firstly, they would still be able to hunt bears for their own sustenance, and they would also still be able to hunt for profit – they just wouldn’t be able to export the bears (though that presumably is where the big money comes from – foreign ‘hunters’ coming in for the kill.)

The second, more emotional, argument however was pure politics. One has to be careful talking about an issue like this as it would be easy to be misconstrued as prejudice. And we certainly never want to return to the days when indigenous peoples were exploited. But this plea did feel like playing a card that they knew no-one could trump.

The claim was that hunting polar bears is part of their cultural heritage. Hunting them maybe, but exporting the carcasses to foreign investors for big profits? That’s not culture, that’s capitalism. There’s a comparison here with the Taiji ‘Cove’ dolphin drives in Japan. Fisherman there say it is their cultural right to hunt and kill dolphins. Again, if fishing for sustenance is cultural, then maybe. But picking out the cute dolphins for sale to dolphinariums and slaughtering their pods is purely a money-making exercise.

Ultimately, the statistics available show that the hunting/exporting trade is having an impact on polar bear populations, and is increasing. Two-thirds of polar bears are expected to be extinct by 2050. Under CITES rules, the case was strong enough to protect these amazing animals – but politics won the day.


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