Bangkok, Thailand – A six month diplomatic initiative by the U.S. State Department and the Department of the Interior to list the polar bear as an endangered species under Appendix I of CITES failed today. The 178 nations that are Parties to the CITES Convention decided that the U.S. proposal lacked the necessary scientific basis for such a listing and was merely a political move requested by the highest levels of the US government. The stakes involved included the right of indigenous peoples to trade in polar bear and to sustainably use the species as a critical wildlife resource.
Here in Bangkok at the 16th Conference of the CITES Parties, the U.S. proposal to uplist polar bear to “Appendix I” was strongly rejected because polar bear do not meet the biological criteria to justify listing. An Appendix I classification provides the maximum level of protection for a CITES listed species and bans all commercial trade for that species.
The polar bear has not undergone a marked population decline. The global population is not small – it is estimated at 20,000-25,000 individuals. Its area of distribution is not restricted – it extends over several million kilometers. These facts are the biological criteria. The joint delegation of the SCI Foundation and SCI presented these facts to many of the 2,000 delegates attending this convention.
The U.S. proposal was entirely based on speculation that over the next 50 years climate change would lead to the loss of the sea ice, the polar bear’s habitat. High levels of uncertainty are included in the models used to predict climate change. Plus, lots of things can happen in 50 years; polar bears may adapt and survive, they may find abundant food resources on land, such as seals, even if the sea ice is lost. There are many uncertainties married to the U.S. proposal, which undercuts the scientific integrity of the CITES Convention and exposes the fact that the listing is for political reasons.
The United States and animal rights groups learned today that politics and emotions were not enough to sway the vote on the polar bear. This lesson should have been learned three years ago at the 15th Meeting of the CITES Parties, when a similar U.S. polar bear proposal was also rejected by a wide margin. Rest assured that CITES is still grounded in principles of sustainable use and science-based decision making.
In debate on the issue, Greenland, among many other Parties, provided remarks against the U.S. proposal and rightfully expressed concern that the credibility of the CITES Convention was at stake. Greenland was clear in saying that these important decisions should not be based on politics, but science. Similar remarks were made by Inuit representatives from Canada. Canada pointed out all the scientific work that they do for polar bear management, stating “nowhere is the polar bear studied more than in the Canadian arctic.”
The European Union (EU), which controls the votes of a block of 28 countries, attempted to find a compromise between Canada and the United States. Although the EU did provide a more reasonable and less restrictive alternative proposal, it was also rejected by the Parties.
Although many countries are concerned about the impacts of climate change, today’s vote favors good science and sustainable use. International trade was found to not be a threat to the polar bear. The SCI and SCI Foundation delegates are staying alert, though, because the meeting has not concluded and there is still a chance that the issue might get reopened for debate in the final days of the convention.
Safari Club International Foundation (SCI Foundation) is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization that funds and manages worldwide programs dedicated to wildlife conservation, and outdoor education. Since 2000, SCIF has provided over $50 million to these causes around the world. Visit the SCI Foundation’s new website at www.safariclubfoundation.org for more information on how you can contribute to international conservation.
Contact: Nelson Freeman, Media@safariclub.org
Photo credit: Polar bear research animal courtesy of Dr. Mitchell Taylor.