Polar bear hunting for indigenous people: Weighing pros and cons

Polar bear hunting for indigenous people: Weighing pros and cons

11 August 2010

The different approaches taken by Russia and the United States in protecting polar bears have caused a "green" conflict between the countries. The problem is that Americans have granted a quota to Alaska's indigenous population for hunting and killing polar bears. In 2009, the UN arrived at a decision that the Russian Chukchi were entitled to the same hunting rights. Following this decision Russia and the United States reached an agreement on polar bear hunting.


The polar bears' main breeding site in Chukotka is located in the nature reserve on Wrangel Island. A mere decade ago up to 300 breeding pairs of polar bears mated there every year and their population totalled 2,500.


The high price of the polar bear's skin, which can reach as much as $20,000, has spurred active hunting of the animals. Up to 200 polar bears are killed every year in Chukotka while no more than 50 dens are left on Wrangel Island, the polar bears' breeding site. Scientists fear that legal hunting could reduce the polar bear to extinction.


Expert Commentary:


The polar bear is a threatened species included on the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species. The population of these animals has dwindled by 30% during the lifetime of three generations (45 years) as their natural habitat shrank and its quality deteriorated. This estimate only takes into account natural causes and does not make reference to poaching.


In Soviet times, Russia used effective methods of protecting polar bears and their habitat and took the most advanced approach in the world to the issue of conserving polar bears. On November 21, 1956, a blanket prohibition on polar bear hunting was adopted, which has been in effect since January 1, 1957. Polar bear hunting in Russia by any person is still considered a criminal offense. Apart from that, in 1976 - when Wrangel Island Nature Reserve, Russia's first reserve in the Arctic, was established - regular work began in Russia to protect the area of key polar bear habitats in order to create a system of protected territories with special federal status.


In the United States, indigenous people in Alaska have always been allowed to hunt for polar bears, as this is seen as their traditional occupation. They hunt for polar bears of any gender and age and at any time without restrictions on quantity; however, commercial hunting is banned. One could hardly call this occupation traditional as indigenous people have adopted modern hunting methods and today they chase polar bears in snowmobiles armed with high-powered rifles.


On October 16, 2000, in Washington, Russia and the United States signed a bilateral inter-governmental Agreement on the Conservation and Management of the Alaska-Chukotka Polar Bear Population, which took effect on September 23, 2007. It was initiated by the United States and its preparation took a long time as it involved expensive research, which was conducted and funded by the American side. In the early 1990s, the part of this research that involves tagging polar bears with satellite-linked transmitters, which was first conducted in Alaska, was expanded to Russia, continuing for several years as a joint research project funded by the Americans. The Russian arm of the research was headed by S. Belikov, from the Nature Conservation R&D Institute at the USSR Agriculture Ministry.


The agreement sets out that polar bear hunting should be regulated as a traditional occupation of indigenous people. For this purpose, equal quotas are set for legal hunting for a specific number of polar bears in Russia and in the United States. Subsistence hunting is subject to the welfare of the polar bear population: quotas are only granted provided that the killing of polar bears does not threaten their numbers.


For Americans the agreement means imposing restrictions on subsistence hunting by indigenous people, while for Russians it means abandoning some of its polar bear protection practices which yielded positive results: the polar bear population has started to recover and Russia has taken the lead among other countries in protecting the polar bear. The main issue, however, is the background against which the decision to permit polar bear subsistence hunting in Chukotka was made, what preceded this decision, who is interested in it and what its likely implications for the polar bear are.


The agreement takes effect at a time when the impact of negative factors on polar bears across the Arctic, and particularly on the Alaska-Chukotka population, is at its peak. The polar bears inhabiting the Chukotka Peninsula are particularly hard hit by adverse factors due to ongoing natural processes, such as the increasing rate of decline of drifting ice. Apart from that, poaching has also been occurring there on an unprecedented scale for a long time now.


The sea ice cover in this part of the Arctic has been melting particularly fast. In the last few years, the edges of pack ice have been retreating north far beyond the boundaries of the continental shelf and almost as far as the North Pole in the area around the Chukotka Sea. As a result, the polar bear population ends up split into four isolated groups every season. Deprived of the ice platform, polar bears are forced to move to land. There are three principal places where the animals go to land, namely Wrangel Island, the northern coast of the Chukotka Peninsula, and the north-western coast of Alaska. Some of the polar bears stay on the ice, which carries them to the central part of the Arctic Ocean and towards the North Pole. In total, several hundred polar bears ended up on the coast of the Chukotka Sea in the last few years. All in all, in the previous five years, not more than 500 to 600 polar bears lived on the coast there (including 250 to 300 on Wrangel Island, 100 to 150 in Chukotka, and 120 to 150 in Alaska). Even if one assumes that about 50% of the population moves with the ice towards the North Pole, it is clear that the overall number of polar bears has not exceeded 1,500 in recent years. Once on land, polar bears face two threats: first, they are forced to go without food for long periods, during which up to 15% of them become emaciated, driving the natural mortality rate up; second, they become an easy target for poachers in Chukotka. The late sea freezing and the thin ice also make polar bears vulnerable to poaching in winter.


The killing of polar bears in Chukotka started to increase in 1992 with the launch of reforms in the country and the scrapping of mechanisms of control over compliance with the law. In the first few years polar bears were primarily killed for meat. However, a black market for buying and selling the polar bear skins emerged very quickly. Poaching became a commercial operation. Channels for transporting and distributing the skins, including sales through the internet, were put in place. Hunters started to receive individual orders. Since the early 1990s - for almost 20 years now - poachers in Chukotka have killed from 70 to 300 polar bears each year. The number of bears killed over a year depends on how many animals happen to be in the area accessible to poachers during the hunting season. These figures are corroborated by different sources, including by poachers, who openly admit that the figures are correct. As a result, the polar bear population was seriously harmed. Hundreds of polar bears were killed - bears that otherwise could breed and contribute to the growth of the polar bear population, thereby helping it deal with the negative impact of climate changes. Poaching rather than global warming per se is behind the current deplorable state of the polar bear population.


There is a simple answer to the question of why the Chukotka poachers readily admit how many polar bears they have killed illegally and how. They are convinced that their ethnic relation to Chukotka's indigenous people releases them from any obligation to comply with the law or face any legal liabilities, for that matter.


Even before the Russian-American agreement was signed, some regional politicians and officials made statements in local presses and on the radio about their efforts to have subsistence hunting legalised. Such statements actually encouraged and supported poaching.


In the late 1990s, the Chukotka Subsistence Hunters' Association (ChSHA), with funding from the United States, prepared a report explaining the importance of subsistence hunting for Chukotka. Based on survey results, the ChSHA released a poster that basically constituted written evidence of regular illegal polar bear hunting in Chukotka - a criminal offence punishable under Russian law. The distribution of this poster was a big factor in making local hunters believe in their impunity and encouraging further poaching. At a bilateral technical meeting devoted to the polar bear, held in Anchorage in Alaska in August 2007, A. Kochnev even said that the quota for killing polar bears to be granted to ethnic communities in Chukotka should be based on the number of polar bears illegally killed there at the time. As simple as that: just legalise poaching, allow people to kill as much as they can, and continue to talk about "combating poaching". Considering that the Chukotka hunters ignore all requirements of the law today, guided by a self-given right: "I have been hunting and will continue to hunt", there are no doubts about what is going to happen if they are legally permitted to hunt. This quota will formally cover the ongoing poaching and make poachers confident that no punishment will follow. They will treat such quotas as a bonus: at last, after 20 years of hunting in violation of the law, their practices have been officially declared legal! Given today's social and economic conditions with such legal nihilism it will be hard to control the number of polar bears actually killed.


For the purposes of the Russian-American polar bear agreement, a quota setting mechanism and a quota enforcement procedure have been developed. Also, a commission has been set up consisting of four commissioners, two from each side: one represents the government of the respective country and the other represents indigenous people. The Russian side has appointed Amirkhan Amirkhanov (from Russia's Natural Resources Ministry) and Sergei Kavry (a representative of Chukotka's indigenous people) as its representatives. The US government is represented on the commission by Geoffrey Haskett (the director of the regional division of the US Fish and Wildlife Service) and Charlie Johnson (a representative of Alaska's indigenous population).


The first technical meeting of the commission was held in Moscow at the end of September 2009.


At the working meeting of the scientific group in Anchorage in early March 2010, where recommendations were being drafted for the commission, polar bear specialists representing the Russian side insisted on placing a moratorium on subsistence hunting until conclusive evidence is produced that the polar bear population is healthy and that their numbers are growing.


Despite the powerful lobby in support of subsistence hunting, we managed to have a complete moratorium on hunting on both sides of the Bering Strait included in the group's recommendations submitted to the commission members for decision. At the end, the group proposed that the commission choose between two options.


One option provides for a moratorium on polar bear subsistence hunting on both sides of the Bering Strait. This means introducing a quota of zero for a period of one to three years, until more reliable information has been obtained on the condition of the population, which will help the commission take its final decision. This option is seen as the least harmful for the polar bear population.


The other option specifies quotas that will be given based on conservative assessments of the condition of the polar bear population. The quota will not exceed 45 polar bears and will be split evenly between Chukotka and Alaska. It is believed that in this case the probability of a reduction in the polar bear population will be low. However, this may have a serious impact on the polar bear population if the number of animals continues to decline. This decision should require that organisations of Chukotka's indigenous hunters, which will be given quotas, implement effective programmes to conserve the polar bear, including vigorous efforts to combat poaching in Chukotka and eventually put an end to it.


The second option, which allows for the killing of 45 polar bears, is, essentially, a political compromise that the American side needs in order to achieve its political goals and justify the huge spending (of the American taxpayers' money) on research that lasted many years and aimed to provide reasons for the introduction of quotas in Alaska.


The second meeting of the commission, where the decision on quotas was taken, was held in Anchorage, Alaska on June 7 to 9, 2010. A large group of lobbyists from Chukotka, including V. Yetylin, attended the meeting. The Russian scientific group was represented by S. Belikov alone. And that is what happened. The American side could only agree to the second scenario, which provides for the quota of 45. However, on the last day of the commission's work, representatives of the indigenous hunters from Alaska and Chukotka held a meeting following which they declared that a quota of 45 would not be enough. They demanded the quota be extended to 68! After arguing for a while they agreed to a quota of 58. The representatives of the Russian and the US governments were taken aback. The Americans said they needed a break. During the break, staffers of the US Fish and Wildlife Service again calculated the parameters of their hypothetical model based on randomly chosen assumptions and concluded that if the polar bear population grew at a rate of 6% instead of 4% (this assumption was made at the March meeting of the commission in order to justify the quota of 45), even the killing of 58 polar bears would not be harmful for the polar bear population and would not reduce their numbers. This is how the American side and the indigenous hunters got what they wanted - by ignoring all evidence of the deplorable condition of the polar bear population in this region.


Amirkhan Amirkhanov (from Russia's Natural Resources Ministry), who represented the Russian government on the commission, was the only commission member at the meeting who opposed the legalisation of subsistence hunting in Chukotka until reliable information about the status of the polar bear population was obtained, but he was outnumbered. At a meeting of the scientific working group in Anchorage, V. Yetylin said that poaching in Chukotka could not be eradicated as it was a protracted process and indigenous hunters could not be effectively involved in the process.


During all the years preceding this decision no measures had been taken in Chukotka to conserve the polar bear population. No cracking down on poaching, with no protected natural reserves with federal and regional status established to protect polar bears and their main habitats.


It turns out that lobbyists are seeking to be legally permitted to go on hunting for polar bears as before despite the lamentable condition of the polar bear population, yet full responsibility for the conservation of polar bears must rest with the Russian Natural Resources Ministry and scientists.


The only place in Chukotka where polar bears can really be safe now is the state-run Wrangel Island Nature Reserve. Studies of polar bears on the island, which have been going on for many years, show that the number of female polar bears staying in dens on the island has dramatically declined in recent years - from 350 to 400 in the early 1990s to 60 to 70 today, a drop of at least 80%. Noticeably fewer polar bears go to Wrangel Island or the Chukotka Sea coast in the autumn. Every year an increasing number of emaciated and injured animals can be found on the island.


My position, which coincides with that of Andrei Boltunov, is as follows: there are no signs whatsoever that the numbers of Alaska-Chukotka polar bears are steady or have started to recover.


Quite the opposite, there are numerous signs that the numbers of polar bears continue to drop and their condition is deplorable. The most suitable polar bear habitats on the ice around the continental shelf keep shrinking. Against this backdrop, the polar bear poaching in Chukotka, which started many years ago, has dealt a severe blow to the polar bear population.


Under these circumstances, giving the green light to subsistence hunting, even if one assumes that poaching could be seriously curbed, is likely to push up the rate at which polar bear numbers have been declining. In reality, legalisation of subsistence hunting in Chukotka will lead to a considerable reduction in polar bear numbers since poaching will be supplemented with subsistence hunting under a quota, which will be used as a cover for further poaching.


Arguments claiming that the preservation of traditional culture in Chukotka requires legalisation of polar bear hunting in the area are absolutely groundless. This is rather an attempt to take the model for subsistence hunting accepted in the US Arctic and apply it to Russia. However, there is a considerable difference in the distribution and availability of resources which are traditional for indigenous people living in North America and north-east Asia. In North America, the continental shelf is narrow and the indigenous people's traditional resources are less abundant than those on the Asian coast of the Bering Strait. In Chukotka, the polar bear has never been the main source of food for indigenous people. Their traditional diet mainly consists of seals, walruses, fish and reindeer. However, if observing traditions and preserving ethnic culture is considered valuable, then it is just for that reason that it is especially important to prevent a reduction in polar bear numbers. Otherwise, this will lead to the loss of the species in the area where the indigenous people of Chukotka live, which will result in a break in the cultural tradition of the native people's relationships with the wildlife of their land.


Hunting permits are being sought by those who are interested in the short-term benefits of killing polar bears. These are people who are engaged in lobbying to earn political capital in the region or people who want to profit off polar bears by selling their skins and organising trophy hunting expeditions together with indigenous people. And the latter is being vigorously lobbied by people linked to trophy hunting businesses, and offers for this kind of hunting expeditions were already posted on the internet even before the commission took the decision.


Today, a great number of Russians are concerned about global climate changes, the shrinking of Arctic ice cover and the fate of the polar bear. And a great number of Russians find it upsetting that a small group of lobbyists, who have personal interests in the management of polar bears in their own way, has been pushing their selfish interests through on the sly. If we lose polar bears in the Russian Arctic, people should know why this happened and who is responsible! Still, we have a chance to avoid this scenario.


Nikita Ovsyanikov, PhD in Biology, deputy director for research of the state-run Wrangel Island Nature Reserve, a member of the group of polar bear experts at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)