Review Launched of Canadian Polar Bear Trade

May 7, 2014 Updated: May 7, 2014

OTTAWA—Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq says she is confident that a new international review of Canada’s trade in polar bear parts will reaffirm this country’s conservation of the species. 

The 180-country Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, agreed last week in Mexico to conduct a lengthy study into the global trade of the iconic Arctic bears. 

Known as a “significant trade review,” the study will look at the practices of all five polar bear range states—Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Norway and Russia—although Canada is the only one that permits commercial trade in polar bears

“Canada has in place a strong management regime for the polar bear that is based on science and aboriginal traditional knowledge,” Aglukkaq said in an email response after being contacted about the review by The Canadian Press. 

“We are confident that Canada’s position will be reaffirmed through this review process.”

According to participants in last week’s meeting in Mexico, Canada did not object to the review, which it hopes will clear the air and confirm that the current bear trade is sustainable. 

Ernie Cooper of the World Wildlife Fund Canada said the review was spurred in part by a dramatic 2010 spike in polar bear exports. Cooper is the Canadian representative on an international organization that tracks global traffic in threatened species. 

“If there are any indications that a species is being traded at levels that look suspicious, then a significant trade review may be required to have a closer look,” Cooper said in an interview. 

However, Cooper says the 2010 data, upon closer examination, actually showed a lot of biological traffic in specimens such as blood and hair samples taken from tranquilized bears. 

“A bit of blood taken from a live bear or a tooth taken from a bear that’s been hunted or some hair samples isn’t the same as a polar bear rug. So a spike of 10,000 biological specimens does not mean 10,000 bears were killed,” he said. 

“When you look at the data, the number of polar bear skins being traded had actually been reduced.” 

Environment Canada says 344 polar bear skins or bodies were exported in 2011, the last year for which numbers are available. Over the past decade, an average of 313 skins or bodies have been exported annually, about two per cent of some 16,000 Canadian polar bears the department estimated in 2011. 

Some 75 percent of polar bear skins are now exported to China, according to Environment Canada. Experts say skin prices have skyrocketed due to Chinese demand. 

Animal welfare groups agree climate change is the real threat to polar bear survival, but some argue no commercial trade should be allowed given the larger environmental challenge. 

“It’s fairly unusual for a developed country to be put into ‘(significant) trade review,’” said Sarah Uhlemann, the Seattle-based staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. 

“It definitely suggests the world has some pretty significant concerns about the polar bear hunting that’s going on in Canada right now.”