On Thin Ice: Polar bears threatened by trade in skins
Efforts to save polar bears have been dominated by the ongoing challenges posed by climate change and the resulting loss of sea ice, which deprives the bears of a place to live and hunt. In contrast, threats resulting from trophy hunting and the international trade in polar bear skins have received little attention. New research conducted by Ole Liodden, People for Nature & Peace's Technical Advisor, revealed that the growing international skin trade poses a serious, immediate and largely unrecognized threat to polar bears. With your help, we can ensure that this newly uncovered danger to the survival of polar bears becomes an urgent conservation priority, as polar bears are under siege between guns and climate change.
The global population of polar bears numbers some 25,000 individuals, However, every year hunters deliberately kill 800-1,000 of them. But the impact of hunting on the future of polar bear populations extends far beyond the mere numbers.
Between 2006 and 2010, the country imported 467 polar bear skins, but between 2011 and 2015, the number more than doubled, to 1,175, accounting for about 70 percent of Canada’s exports, according to Liodden.
Recent estimates by U.S. Geological Survey scientists predict that because of melting sea ice, up to two-thirds of all polar bears will be lost by 2050.
If we want polar bears to be around, we need to help them - and fast.
Although a warmer climate may largely determine the future distribution of polar bears, the vast majority of population
reductions over the past 30 years are attributable to unsustainable hunting. At least for the next ten to 15 years, hunting will likely continue to play a major role in determining polar bear population trends.
To make things worse, hunters preferentially target large males who are in good condition and whose fur is of superior quality. The consequences of slectively removing the strongest animals that are most likely to cope in a warming Arctic by being able to withstand longer periods without food turns the principle of natural selection on its head and will progressively weaken the genetic resilience of polar bear populations that are subject to hunting.
Polar bears are not evenly distributed throughout the Arctic. Instead they occur in 19 more or less discrete subpopulations nor do they comprise a single global population.
, but rather occur in 19 relatively discrete subpopulations.
Global demand for polar bear skins nearly quadrupled between 2012 and 2014, compared to the period from 2006 to 2008. Attracted by increasing polar bear skin prices, a growing number of hunters becomae involved in polar bear skin trade.
The growing international skin trade presents a serious, immediate and largely unrecognized threat to polar bears, which must become an urgent conservation priority as polar bears are caught between climate change and guns.
The highest number of hunts take place in Canada, but polar bears are also hunted in Greenland, the USA (Alaska) and Russia. In some areas in the Canadian Arctic more than 90% of polar bears targeted are large males. The number of polar bears killedduring the 2011 and 2012 Canadian hunting seasons exceeded government hunting quotas by 11 percent, adding a growing number of illegal kills to the already high legal death toll.
The average price of polar bear skins at fur auctions in Canada has more than quadrupled between 2006 and 2014 (from CAD 1,311 to CAD 6,063). For many hunters this substantial rise in skin prices has transformed what were once traditional, subsistence hunts into money-driven, commercial hunts.
The observed rise in polar bear skin prices between 2006 to 2014 was the direct result of a growing demand from Chinese buyers (CITES database). Imports to China rose from 28 polar bear skin in 2006 to 300 skin imports in 2013. By 2011– 2015, 70.6% of all polar bears skins exported from Canada were imported to China
"The vigorous demand is an open invitation for organized wildlife criminals to enter the polar bear skin market. We might have as little as five years left to curtail or stop the international trade in polar bears skins before we are faced with an “Arctic Rhino” situation in Russia and Canada.
High prices for quality polar bear skins entices more hunters to become involved with what are in essence “commercial” hunting activities. Hunters are paid considerably more for good quality skins. Like trophy hunters they therefore target the biggest, strongest and healthiest bears.