Polar bears have lost out on increased protection under international law after a US led bid for a total ban on trade in products made from the animals, such as furs and rugs, was rejected at a UN wildlife meeting in Doha, Qatar, Thursday.
The US proposal, backed by countries including, Egypt and Rwanda, was defeated at a meeting of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species, (Cites), the UN body that regulates trade in animals.
The US had warned that the threat posed by climate change to polar bears’ survival will become so great the animals should be afforded the highest level of protection. Projections suggest that the bear's numbers, which are currently estimated at 20.000 to 25.000, could decline by two-thirds by 2050 due to habitat loss in the Arctic.
But opposition to the ban, led by Canada, Norway and Greenland, argued that the threat from trade was minimal but said hunting is critical to their economies. Only 2% of Canadian polar bears are internationally traded and the country strictly manages the commerce, Canada said.
“There is no doubt that action must continue to ensure the conservation of polar bears. Canada's goal is long term survival of polar bears Canadian representative Basile Van Havre said. But Canada does not think the proposal is supported by facts.
We're disappointed said Jane Lyder, the US Department of Interior's deputy assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks. But we understand that CITES is still trying to understand how to incorporate climate change into its decision making”.
The big white bear, the world's largest land meat-eater, nanuq to the Inuit, may be uniquely susceptible to climate change as rising temperatures fast shrink its habitat, the Arctic sea ice.
Many bears spend their whole lives on the ice, mating, giving birth and hunting for their main prey, the ringed seal. But Arctic summers may be almost free of sea ice within 30 years, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted last April.
Data available on polar bear trade shows that since the early 1990s the market for polar bear carcasses and parts has increased. From 1992 to 2006, approximately 31,294 live polar bears, carcasses or parts were exported to 73 different countries, according to data collected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
Skins are the most popular export item, and Canada is the largest commercial exporter.
In May 2008, the US classified the polar bear as a threatened species, the first with its survival at risk due to global warming. The determination made all but subsistence hunting illegal.
Andrew Wetzler, director of NRDC's Wildlife Conservation Project, called the vote a setback in what otherwise has been a successful effort to protect the bear.
It keeps some the most important populations of polar bears squarely in the crosshairs, he said. We will continue work to find a new way to protect polar bears from this unsustainable hunt.