Mar 6

As the 16th meeting of the Conference of the Parties continues, the USA and Russia have come together in an attempt to ban export trade in polar bear products.

Male polar bear

Canada is home to three-quarters of the remaining polar bear population

Polar bear trade

In a bid to provide polar bears with the highest level of protection under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the American-Russian proposal calls for a ban on any international commercial trade of skin, fur, fangs and other products made from polar bears.

A similar proposal made in 2010 by the USA was voted against by both Russia and Norway. However, since then Russia has reversed its stance on polar bear conservation and is now highly vocal in support of its protection. Voting on this proposal, thought to happen later today or tomorrow, will be one of the key votes of the entire conference.

The USA and Russia argue that the trade in polar bear products is entirely unsustainable, calling on evidence that predicts a two-third decline in the polar bear population by the middle of this century.  However, the proposal has had a frosty welcome from Canada, which is home to approximately three-quarters of the world’s polar bear population.

Polar bears on the ice

Hunting and trade of polar bears will be illegal if the American-Russian proposal is accepted

Insufficient evidence

Canada, which is the only country to currently allow the export of polar bear products, argues against the evidence, claiming that it is “insufficient”. They state that Canadian Inuit communities rely on hunting and trading in polar bears to survive and that it is deeply embedded in their culture. The Canadian delegates also dispute the declared impact of melting ice on polar bears, labelling it as “uncertain”. These claims are puzzling as it is widely known that polar bears depend on sufficient ice cover to hunt seals.

If the American-Russian proposal is accepted, the Inuit people will still be able to hunt for polar bears, as stated in Canada’s domestic law. The restrictions will apply to exporting skins and other parts which will no longer be permitted under the new laws.

Polar bear jumping between ice floes

Polar bears rely on sea ice to be able to hunt for seals

Polar bear plight

 Despite polar bear hunting being prohibited in Russia, it is estimated that nearly 200 individuals are poached there every year. The pelt and other parts of these bears are sold with false Canadian documentation that allows them to enter the trade markets. If the proposed laws were to be passed, these certificates would become void, thereby putting an end to this problem.

As polar bears become rarer, the fear is that demand for their skins will increase and therefore they will become more valuable. This in turn drives the hunters who can fetch more for their catch, and the ugly cycle continues.

Only five countries are home to the polar bear: the USA, Canada, Norway, Russia and Greenland (represented by Denmark). With Russia and the USA on one side, and Canada and Greenland on the other, it would seem that the polar bear’s fate lies in the hands of the Norwegians who have yet to publicly announce their alliance.


Read more on this story at The Guardian – US and Russia unite in bid to strengthen protection for polar bear and The New York Times – U.S. and Russia team up in a bid polar bears.

View photos and videos of the polar bear on ARKive.

Read more about polar bears on our Polar Bear Day Blog.

Kaz Armour, ARKive Text Author