Polar bears – how the Inuit people beat celebs, activists and Presidents

A new paper by M. Tyrrell and D Clark upcoming in Global Environmental Change provides a very useful analysis of the politics behind the attempt by the US and Russian Federation to up-list polar bears onto Appendix I of CITES i.e. ban the trade.

The proposal was supported by powerful animal welfare lobbies who ran a celebrity-endorsed media campaign. It was opposed by Canada and the Inuits as well as a scientific report from IUCN. At the Conference of Parties (COP) of CITES in Bangkok in April this year, the proposal was narrowly defeated thanks in part to an eloquent campaign by the Inuit representatives. The paper highlights the importance of the NGO-led campaign and their influence on the media in the run up to the vote.

“Narratives of commercial legal and illegal polar bear hunting and the imminent extinction of polar bears were aggressively promoted, rhetorically supported by the manipulation of trade and scientific data. By rendering discourses of commercial hunting and a lucrative global trade in polar bear parts highly visible, sustainable hunting and climate change-induced habitat loss were rendered invisible”

The authors speculate on the cost for the Inuits had the proposal been accepted:

“It would have closed down opportunities for individual Inuit to sell occasional bear pelts and re-invest the money in the subsistence economy and, as both the EEC seal skin ban and the Endangered Species Act listing have previously done, it would have soured many Inuit to all forms of conservation and rendered co-management more difficult”

So the bottom line for the authors is that the proposal was scientifically unproven, diverted attention from the real threat to polar bears (business-as-usual emissions of greenhouse gases) and would have removed the incentives for communities to use species in a sustainable way.

This battle will be fought again at the CITES COP in South Africa in 2017. A similar battle  is likely to be fought out over rhino horn. For rhino, South Africa in considering to propose the “annotation” of rhino horn in Appendix 2 in order to allow local landowners to trade it – safari businesses see this as a way to protect the species through sustainable use. Animal welfare groups and many governments remain opposed.

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