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Director's Corner

Meet Service Director Dan Ashe.

Making Sure Trade Doesn’t Hurt the Polar Bear

My family goes to the beach together every summer, and several years ago, my middle brother's wife was yelling at her teenage son for doing what teenage sons do, staying in the shower for about 40 minutes.  After several episodes of yelling at him, she just screamed, "Matthew, polar bears are swimming in the Arctic because of you!"

Polar bears are in trouble, and not just because teenage boys are taking long, hot showers.

polar bearsA U.S. proposal would put the polar bear in Appendix I of CITES, which provides the most protection for species. Credit: Scott Schliebe/USFWS

Of the 12 polar bear subpopulations we have data for, only one small population is increasing, three others appear stable and EIGHT are declining.

Polar bears need sea ice – using it for hunting, traveling, breeding and resting – and its loss due to global warming is the primary threat to polar bear. 

  • Follow the Polar Bear  
  • Clearly, climate change poses the most compelling conservation challenge to polar bears, and that is really a challenge that will affect nearly everything we do.

    But it isn’t the only threat.

    Commercial trade in polar bears is growing, and the United States is concerned that commercial trade compounds the threat to the polar bear due to the loss of sea ice.

    That is why the United States has submitted a proposal for consideration at the 16th CITES Conference of the Parties (CoP16) in March to transfer the polar bear to Appendix I of CITES from Appendix II.

    CITES governs international wildlife trade, and Appendix I comprises species threatened with extinction and provides the greatest level of protection. International trade for primarily commercial purposes is prohibited. 

    Appendix I with its restrictions on commercial trade could have significant benefits for the polar bear.

    From 2001 through 2010, an average of 3,200 items made from polar bears were exported or re-exported annually from the polar bear Range States -- the United States, Canada, Russia, Greenland and Norway. This represents about 400 to 500 polar bears per year.

    That may not sound like a lot, but according to the Polar Bear Specialist Group, only 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears exist range-wide.

    According to Humane Society International, and based on a survey of auction houses, polar bear harvest in Canada – traditionally a subsistence activity -- is becoming highly commercialized and market driven. 

    During the period 2007–2012, 40 to 80 hides were typically offered at auction in Canada. Average hide prices during this period ranged from $2,000 to $5,000, while maximum hide prices topped $12,000.

    Transfer of the polar bear to CITES Appendix I will not answer the threat posed to the species by the loss of habitat. But it will help ensure that commercial trade does not compound the habitat and biological threats.  

    When you think about it, this isn’t really different from species like the Siberian tiger.   The tiger has been decimated by habitat loss and fragmentation, and loss of its prey base.  Now, trade is a significant issue for tiger conservation.  We have the chance to stop polar bear trade before it’s a problem.

    The Russian Federation, a key polar bear partner and one of the polar bear Range States, has signaled their support for our proposal.

    We hope to persuade the European nations to join us in this effort. We have a long history of working collaboratively with them to achieve conservation measures through CITES.

    Now, we have a chance to do something important for the polar bear. We should.


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