Saving their skins

Polar bears face an existential threat from climate change. So why are they still being hunted for the wildlife trade?
By Dr Barbara Maas, Founder and Chief Executive of People For Nature and Peace

Polar bears depend on arctic sea ice to hunt, live and breed. But climate change is melting the world beneath their feet and robbing them of places to live, hunt, move and breed. Without sea ice, there will be no polar bears.

That’s why most people are under the impression that polar bears are well-protected, to give them the best chance to survive the climate crisis we unleashed on them. The reality, however, is very different. Nearly 53,500 polar bears were killed to be sold as rugs or glass-eyed hunting trophies between 1963 and 2016. That’s more than double the 26,000 polar bears living on the planet today.

Polar bears inhabit the very north of our planet, spreading out across five range states that include Canada, the USA, the Russian Federation, Norway and Greenland. The population is made up of 19 subpopulations, 13 of which lie either wholly (9) or partially (4) in Canada. Canada therefore has stewardship over roughly two thirds of the world’s polar bears. It is also the last polar bear nation to permit the export of skins and hunting trophies. The former accounts for about 92 per cent of the country’s polar bear kills. The rest is made up of hunting trophies but also illegal kills. 

Photo by Ole Jørgen Liodden

Only Inuit people are permitted to hunt polar bears in Canada. They can either kill the bears themselves to use or sell their skins, or allow trophy hunters to do the killing. Most native hunters choose to sell their allocated skins for cash, and this is where things start to go very wrong. While the number of skins sold to most Western countries has declined, Canada has been actively courting buyers in China, and it has worked. Over the 30-year period between 1975 and 2005, China imported 90 Canadian polar bear skins, an average of three skins a year. This figure quickly rose to 1,642 or an average of 162 skins per year year during the following ten years, making China by far the biggest market.

These developments were mirrored by a sharp upturn in skin prices, which attracted more Inuit hunters wishing to become involved. What was once traditional subsistence hunting was therefore transformed into a commercial pursuit that supplies overseas buyers. In the process, international market forces, rather than biologically sustainable population management began to dominate decision-making.

It’s easy to see where this is going. Experience with species after species, from rhinos and tigers to pangolins, saiga (antelope) and turtles has shown that once the door to Chinese and other Asian wildlife markets is blown open, curbing the demand to ward off extinctions is incredibly tough or close to impossible.

Photo from People For Nature and Peace

A further critical factor lies in the fact that Canadian hunting quotas are not determined scientifically. A recent report by the Norwegian Scientific Committee for Food and Environment identifies major gaps with regard to data that are pivotal in setting sustainable quotas. The report finds that such information is often missing, withheld, decades out of date, or uncertain. Sustainability is further eroded by the fur and trophy hunters’ preference for large, healthy bears, which turns natural selection on its head.

In the absence of reliable data, it’s important to give polar bears the benefit of the doubt and proceed with caution to avoid harmful population effects. Yet, incredibly, neither the precautionary principle or the effects of climate change are taken into account during the Canadian quota-setting process.

Photo by Ole Jørgen Liodden

The situation gets worse: under Canadian law, what’s referred to as Traditional Indigenous Knowledge is seen as more important in setting polar bear quotas than science. Inuit communities, which have authority over roughly 90 per cent of Canada’s polar bears, determine how many bears are killed for their skins or as trophies each year. But population assessments based on Traditional Indigenous Knowledge differ sharply from scientific appraisals that are endorsed by the experts of the IUCN Species Survival Commission’s Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG).

According to the PBSG, trends for four of Canada’s 13 subpopulations are declining, while trends for six are unknown. In contrast, Inuit communities assert that seven subpopulations are stable, while the remaining six are growing.

Many people in Inuit communities also don’t believe that polar bears are adversely affected by climate change. But as sea ice melts ever-earlier and refreezes later each year, more polar bears are forced to spend time on land during the summer. This led to the belief among local Inuit people that polar bear populations have in fact grown too large. Their latest population management plan therefore calls for the active reduction of polar bear numbers.

In the words of Dag Vongraven, the Co-Chair of the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group, Canadian polar bear kill quotas have mostly been set against scientific advice for the past 20 years.

Photo by Ole Jørgen Liodden

Despite all this, the hunting of polar bears for the wildlife trade remains under the radar for many people around the world. Elephant ivory, rhino horn or species such as pangolins, turtles and many others that have been used in Asia for traditional medicine or other purposes for hundreds or thousands of years. Therefore, these problems are well-established and have been exercising the minds of the conservation and science community, decision-makers and the wider public for a considerable time.

When it comes to new developing wildlife trade fronts, these often remain under the radar until someone actually looks. In the case of polar bears, the person who looked was photographer and People For Nature And Peace’s polar bear expert Ole Jørgen Liodden, who spent more than three years meticulously combing through mountains of widely dispersed and often difficult to access information. Ole published his comprehensive findings in a book called Polar Bears And Humans in 2019. Together with information that’s emerged since then, it paints the alarming picture we see today.

Another reason why the threat of unsustainable international trade in polar bear products may as yet not have received the attention it deserves is that people are primed to associate polar bear conservation with climate change. But climate change and wildlife trade are not unrelated in the case of polar bears. This is because both fur and trophy hunters preferentially target the biggest, strongest and healthiest bears. It’s exactly these individuals who will be best equipped to cope with receding and thinning sea ice and other environmental challenges. Killing polar bears for rugs or as hunting trophies therefore undermines the species’ potential to survive.

Besides, resolving the climate crisis will take time. Ending the trade in polar bear products can be accomplished quickly. It is therefore the most immediate conservation action we can take to protect polar bears now. 

For me, the problems run deeper than moral distaste for the brutal reality of killing an animal as majestic and powerful as polar bears for rugs or other frivolous knick-knacks or hunting trophies, which is only made worse by the fact the polar bear’s future is looking far from rosy due to climate change.

As a conservation biologist, the fact that Canada has turned its back on fact-based decision-making when it comes to polar bear management is simply unacceptable, because it can only deepen the desperate biodiversity loss facing our world. As an animal welfare scientist and a human being, I’m deeply troubled when the lives of animals are taken without as much as a nod to their sentience or regard for the pain and suffering that’s inflicted.

With their world melting away, polar bears have never been more imperilled than they are now. They need all the help they can get to make it in a world that is changing irrevocably because of our collective actions. It’s time to turn down the heat for polar bears and offer them the best possible chance of survival by ending the trade in their skins and body parts now.

To give polar bears a fighting chance, we literally have to save the skins on their backs. In other words, we need a ban on the international trade in polar bear products, including skins. To this end, People for Nature and Peace is working within the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which regulates international trade in threatened species. It’s the same legal mechanism that prevents countries from selling whale meat, ivory, rhino horn and other wildlife products.

Photo from People For Nature and Peace

We will continue to draw attention to this problem and build support for an international trade ban among the public, the scientific and NGO community, and decision-makers. At the same time, we’re liaising with governments to take unilateral action by closing their borders to polar bear imports and exports. This includes Norway, which is the second largest importer of polar bear skins after China, despite having protected its own polar bears from any kind of hunting since 1973.

Another aspect of our work is highlighting sustainable, alternative livelihoods for Inuit communities that would be affected by such a ban. It is vital to identify sustainable alternative incomes for these communities. Across the border in Alaska, Inuit communities have shown that the potential of small-scale ecotourism is huge in this regard and demonstrates that animals are much more valuable alive than dead.

Every year 600-800 polar bears are killed with guns, crossbows and even harpoons for their skins to be sold as rugs or mounted as gaudy, glass-eyed hunting trophies. This trade is unsustainable and unnecessary, and it undermines polar bears’ chances of coping with the deadly challenges imposed on them by climate change. Ending this trade is an urgent priority.

For more, see:

Polar bear photos by Ole Jørgen Liodden:

NOTE: The best way to solve the crises facing the planet and its wildlife is by having open, honest, respectful conversations and hearing diverse voices from around the world. The New Big 5 project does not necessarily support or agree with every opinion or idea expressed by photographers, conservationists or organisations featured on the New Big 5 website. The many different wildlife charities, photographers, film-makers and conservationists we’ve collaborated with also do not necessarily support or agree with every idea or opinion expressed by other people or organisations on the website. It’s ok to disagree and debate. But we hope the opinions and ideas can inspire people, make people think, and be part of the conversation to help our planet and the animals that live on it.

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