Scott Sorensen
Two polar bears seen on the Arctic ice during a research cruise to map the ice in 3D.

Conservationists reject polar bear trade ban

A proposal to ban the international trade of polar bear parts was rejected at a Bangkok gathering of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species after being opposed by Canada, Greenland, and Norway.

A bid to ban the international trade of polar bear pelts and other parts was rejected today (March 7) at a major meeting of conservationists in Bangkok.

The proposal was submitted by the United States at the meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), and it would have upgraded the status of polar bears in the CITES Treaty, making international commercial trade in the species illegal. It was shut down with a final vote of 38 in favor, 42 against and 46 abstentions.

"We are obviously disappointed that the CITES membership failed to give greater protection to polar bears by limiting permissible trade in polar bear pelts and other body parts," David J. Hayes, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, said in a statement. "We will continue to work with our partners to reduce the pressure that trade in polar bear parts puts on this iconic Arctic species, even as we take on the longer term threat that climate change poses to polar bears."

The proposal was backed by Russia but opposed by Canada, Greenland and Norway, all of which have polar bear populations within their borders. Inuit groups in particular voiced strong opposition to the ban, arguing that it would have threatened their livelihoods and that the bears are being hunted responsibly in the Canadian Arctic.

Dan Ashe, head of the U.S. delegation at CITES, said high prices for polar bear hides have driven an increase in hunting and that the ban "would have ensured that commercial trade would not compound the threats of habitat loss that are facing this species."

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the hides sell for an average of $2,000 to $5,000, but can sometimes top $12,000. The agency estimates that about 3,200 polar bear parts —  including skins, claws and teeth — are exported or re-exported from countries that are home to the species.

Conservationists estimate there are 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears left in the wild, and their populations are threatened by declining Arctic sea ice, oil development and pollutants. In May 2008, the United States listed the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, while in Canada and Russia they are listed as a species of special concern.

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