The polar bear (Ursus maritimus) stands as a flagship species for conservation action, with its climate-change related habitat loss well publicised, but the problems it faces are more complex than just melting ice. Concern has been rising amongst organisations such as the NRDC – the Natural Resources Defence Council, with over 1.3 million members – about trade of polar bear body parts, a currently legal activity, along with regulated hunting.
Polar bears are considered vulnerable species, with population decline estimated at >30% over the last half-century, and predicted decline by 2/3rds by 2050, primarily due to climate change. Their position as a mammalian carnivore may encourage human interest, but also means they exist in small numbers, reproduce at lower rates and rely on longer food chain, reducing species resilience.
Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus), Unknown
Hunting of polar bears is a tradition of Arctic people, but increased rapidly as technology advanced. First firearms, and later snowmobiles and airplanes were used, increasing annual kills from an estimated 400-500 to 1300-1500 in the early 1900’s. As concern grew, regulations on hunting were formed, beginning with the Soviet Union (1956), and culminating in the International Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears (1973). Signed by the five nations with the biggest polar bear populations (U.S, Canada, Russia, Norway and Greenland), the agreement allows killing by local people using traditional methods, but prevents trade for commercial purposes. Data is shared between these countries, which meet every 3-4 years and are responsible under the agreement to protect polar bear ecosystems using research-based conservation practices.
With species-specific hunting regulations and high public interest, the polar bear is in a much more favourable position than many other endangered animals. However, threats to polar bears are particularly high. Climate change directly reduces sea-ice, reducing feeding ability and causing drowning, and could lead to their underground dens collapsing. Toxic pollutants accumulate in polar bears from longer food-chains, illegal hunting occurs, and disease may increase as bacteria survive better in warmer conditions. It is these issues which cause groups such as the NRDC to be so concerned about trading, which could potentially increase hunting incentive by making them profitable and available to the public, adding to polar bear decline.
Hunting is still legal, however, in small, highly regulated conditions by local people. Such hunting has existed for centuries, a traditional part of many cultures which also provides income. This raises the question of whether local cultures should suffer for globally-caused climate change, and has become the topic of much debate. At the most recent CITES (The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna) meeting, the United States supported the ban of commercial trade of all Polar bear parts, but the issue remains contentious. Opinion is still divided on the impact of regulated killing, whilst some deny even the decision to list the Polar bear as threatened. CITES will meet again in March 2013, meanwhile the issue highlights the problems caused when multiple threats affect a species, and the conflict between traditional culture and modern environmentalism.