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Polar bears are in danger.
This will not come as a shock, particularly if we remember the polar bear from “An Inconvenient Truth.” The most obvious reason is climate change, which is rapidly eroding away polar bear habitats. Another significant reason is trophy hunting and international trading, which both occur in and originate from Canada.
Despite the push by conservation groups to halt international trading, for Inuit communities in Canada hunting is a traditional and necessary step in curbing the population to make Inuit communities safe.
According to Paul Irngaut, a representative for the Inuit community of Nunavut, the polar bear population is doing just fine. So fine, in fact, that their numbers pose a danger to communities like Nunavut. In 2014, Halloween in Arviat, Nunavut, was held inside the community hall due to polar bear proximity to town.
These local indigenous populations have a legitimate claim in hunting for survival and safety, but according to wildlife conservation groups, international trade steps over the bounds of traditional subsistence hunting and further damages the already endangered populations.
The problem here is that if the Inuit are hunting polar bears to keep dangerously high populations at bay near their communities, then there is no need to sell pelts at record highs to other countries. Yet the international polar bear pelt trade has been dramatically increasing in the past five years, according to Sarah Uhlemann, senior attorney and international director for the Center for Biological Diversity.
Uhlemann is careful to clarify that conservation groups like the Center for Biological Diversity are not aiming for a total ban on indigenous hunting.
“Of course, it is a sensitive issue,” she tells BTRtoday. “The Center respects the tradition of hunting polar bears in native communities. When it comes to subsistence uses, we are absolutely fine with the sustainable hunting of polar bears. What we know, though, is that it’s not traditional to sell your polar bear hide for $7,000 so it can be put in front of someone’s fireplace in China.”
Currently, there are only five countries with polar bear populations—the USA, Russia, Greenland, Norway, and Canada. Canada is the only country that allows trophy hunting and international trading of polar bears. It is also home to roughly two-thirds of the world’s polar bear population.
While polar bears do fall under the purview of the Endangered Species Act, they are not protected in the same way as many other endangered species. The reason for this is largely due to the unchecked ravages of climate change, which present more of a direct threat to polar bears than other endangered species. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, scientists estimate that the polar bear population will be two-thirds extinct by 2050, due largely to record decreases in Arctic temperatures and resulting sea level drops.
The Convention on International Trade and Endangered Species (CITES) places species in two categories: The first is Appendix 2, in which the species is considered threatened but can still be traded internationally if proven such trade won’t be detrimental to the overall population. The second is Appendix 1, which is a total commercial ban on international trade of that protected animal.
There is a push by the U.S. and other countries to change the protected status of polar bears from Appendix 2 to Appendix 1. This would specifically halt the international trade of Canadian polar bear pelts. If illegal trade was discovered and that country (Canada, for example) did not take steps to halt the trade, trade sanctions would be imposed.
The effects of climate change are blatant in polar bear habitats. Polar bears are swimming farther for stable ice and land masses, with some swimming as many as 60 miles in one stretch.
In addition to declines in their habitat, polar bear populations are experiencing significant body emaciation. There is a distinct increase in underweight and malnourished bears. One result is an average reduction in birth rate from two cubs per mother to one or none.
There is also an increase in cannibalism among polar bears, particularly between adult males and cubs.
Inuit communities work in conjunction with the Canadian government to set quotas for hunting, which is typically referred to as “management.” These quotas are, according to Inuit representatives, sustainable.
“Canada has one of the best, if not the most robust, polar bear management [plans] in the world,” Adamie Delisle-Alaku, a representative for the Inuit community of Nunavik, told Nunatsiaq Online.
This is exacerbated by the fact that while only Inuit and First Nations communities are allowed to trophy hunt in Canada, they can legally let a non-native person trophy hunt under their native hunting permit. According to Uhlemann, it is therefore difficult to track precisely where and why the hunting and trading occurs to such a large degree.
In addition to population control, many Inuit communities economically rely on the polar bear trade. In much the same way that environmental groups put faces on endangered species to prompt action, Inuit representatives, like Irngaut, want to “put a face” on the communities who rely on the trade.
“When we go home, you and me, we open the fridge and there’s food there. But for a lot of families in Nunavut, they don’t have any food in the fridge. When people stop trade of any kind, not only polar bear but seals or what-have-you, that’s the only source of income for a lot of families,” he told Nunatsiaq Online. “And when they talk about uplisting [the polar bears], and they stop trade, they effect a lot of families.”
What, then, is the solution? Even if Inuit hunting is reduced, polar bears are updated to Appendix 1, and international trade is halted, the polar bear population will likely not come surging back to where it was decades ago and many families will lose a sense of safety and financial security.
Ultimately, these serious ramifications should direct countries throughout the world to enact polices that mitigate climate change to sustainably protect animals like the polar bears and ourselves.