Consistent approach is necessary to protect polar bear from extermination

Consistent approach is necessary to protect polar bear from extermination

22 March 2012

The melting of Arctic ice and the constantly increasing human impact on nature cause numerous negative effects on the polar bear population. Polar bears have not been studied in great detail everywhere. Data on some polar bear populations is lacking or insufficient, particularly, on the polar bear population in the Russian Arctic. Well-known data from various Arctic areas, however, cause great concern for the fate of polar bears.


According to research conducted over the past two years by scientists from the countries of the Arctic region, the polar bear situation is worsening. Their physical condition is deteriorating in some regions and their biometrics are worsening as well. The shape and size of their skulls are shrinking, their reproductive capabilities are in decline, and their gender characteristics and population dynamics are changing. There are more pollutants in their tissue. The level of anti-infective and anti-parasitic antibodies in their blood is rising, and this means higher morbidity and infection rates. The average bodyweight is decreasing and litter sizes are getting smaller. The number of single females is growing, while the ratio of males in the populations is falling. These are not the only negative consequences. As the ice cover reduces, the species is dividing into smaller subpopulations, which results in inbreeding. The growing human influence on the species includes environmental pollution and aboriginal hunting, which continues in Canada, the United States and Greenland, and poaching in the Russian Arctic, as well as marine navigation development on the Arctic ice -- not to mention other aspects of human interference.


In September 2010, the area of the Arctic ice reached a minimal average level for the past 30 years. Ice receding is most widely occurring in the Eurasian part of the Arctic. As the offshore ice melts, the remaining ice cover prevails around the Canadian Arctic archipelago. Should the tendency continue for a long time, polar bears will have to live in refugia (refuge) on land and on the remaining offshore ice sheets in the Canadian Arctic during summer. More reliable scientific forecasts say that if the climate change progresses and the present human impact on polar bears remains, their population outside the Canadian Arctic will disappear within 40 years. There is a 40% chance of the polar bear's extinction in the Canadian Arctic within 95 years. This will happen unless urgent measures are taken to preserve the polar bear population across the Arctic.


Russia is a recognised leader in polar bear conservation. Polar bear hunting is prohibited in Russia. This does not make the polar bear conservation issue less urgent, though. The problem of polar bear poaching still exists in the country along with the illegal trade of furs poached from animals that were killed in the Russian Arctic. Furs on sale in Russia include both those legally produced from animals hunted in Canada under Canadian law and those imported to Russia as hunter trophies, as well as furs from animals poached in Russia. Polar bear fur costs between 600,000 and 1.2 million roubles. Canadian furs trigger demand and further hunting. Canadian biologist Andrew Derocher says: "The furs (in Canada) have been rather expensive in the past two years, which is mainly due to the high demand of countries with a transition economy". The demand for furs prompts hunting. There has recently been an increase in polar bear hunting under aboriginal hunting quotas in Canada. Nunavut regional officials increased polar bear hunting quotas three times despite the objections of the Canadian federal government. Dr. Ian Stirling says that the opportunity for "easy money" prompts people to hunt more bears without considering the population's future. Increasing aboriginal hunting quotas for hunting tours and exporting furs for further sale trigger greater polar bear extermination in Canada. Fur trading also stimulates poaching in Russia.


On February 24, 2012, the Russian Marine Mammal Council held a meeting to discuss increasing the conservation status of polar bears. Specifically, the council members discussed the application of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in respect to preventing the commercial hunting of polar bears. Considering the disastrous consequences of the aboriginal quota on trading in Canada for the polar bear population, six large international conservation organisations – on behalf of millions of colleagues and activists around the world – addressed the council to ask Russia to initiate moving the polar bear from Appendix II to Appendix I of the CITES. Recognizing Russia's leading role in the protection of polar bears, the global community hopes that our initiative on this issue will help prevent the extermination of polar bears in other countries of the Arctic region. Should the polar bear be included in the CITES Appendix I, stricter control will be imposed on the over-the-border transportation of fur, body parts and other products of polar bear hunting. The CITES bans commercial use of the species included in Appendix I, which fully corresponds with the five-part International Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears and the agreement of the United States and Russia on the conservation of the Alaska-Chukotka polar bear population. The inclusion of the polar bear in the CITES Appendix I would thus close any loopholes for over-the-border transportation of any marketable products of polar bear hunting.


What did we gain from the discussion? The meeting was attended by Russian scientists and polar bear experts, representatives of scientific communities (Russian Nature Conservation Research Institute, Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Environment and Evolution, the Wrangel Island Nature Reserve and ChukotTINRO), the Ministry of Natural Resources and representatives of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. It should be noted that this is the first time the CITES status of polar bears has been discussed in such detail. The positive aspects of the meeting included the opportunity for participants to openly voice their opinion.


During the discussion, the Russian participants were divided into those who believe a higher protection status for the polar bear will help to close loopholes for commercial use of polar bear hunting products and will prevent the extermination of the animals across the Arctic, and those who are of an opposite stance. The second group's argumentation clearly shows their priorities.


Surprisingly, increasing the protection of polar bears by the CITES was not supported by the representatives of organisations that state as their objectives conserving the polar bear and restoring its population in the Russian Arctic.


The meeting participants expressed their thoughts as nonbinding recommendations. Russia's stance on the polar bear's CITES status will be determined by authorised government agencies at the next CITES session in 2013.


Should there be no changes to the conservation policy to ensure the consistent and system-wide protection of the species from extermination, we might lose the polar bear. This could happen even sooner than the forecasts state. At the time when the species is endangered, raising hunting quotas and the commercial use of polar bear hunting trophies are an attempt to make a profit while one can still be made regardless of the possible consequences.


Our long-term research shows that the polar bear can be protected even amid global warming. What is needed is consistent conservation measures and closer cooperation among researchers and research organisations. The polar bear must be given an opportunity to employ its inner ability to adapt to the changing environment, which requires protection from hunting first and foremost. It is vital to combat poaching and prevent any loopholes for the commercial use of polar bears. Polar bear conservation is feasible provided action is consistent and timely.


Nikita Ovsyanikov, Ph.D. in Biology; Deputy Head of Research, Wrangel Island Nature Reserve; Member, Polar Bear Expert Group, International Union for Conservation of Nature, Member, Russian-American Commission Research Group.