3/11/2013 3:56:51 PM

Polar Bears to Remain on Appendix II of CITES

Last week, the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) decided, after much debate, NOT to move polar bears to Appendix 1 of CITES. The fact that polar bears were not "uplisted" has been heralded in the media as either a conservation victory or a tragedy, depending on your perspective. So what does it all mean?

All polar bears worldwide are threatened with extinction unless humans dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, some polar bear populations have not yet been affected by climate change and small, sustainable hunts in those areas don't pose a threat to the survival of the species.

"The data show that, at present, polar bears are not in immediate danger of extinction," says Dr. Steven C. Amstrup, PBI's chief scientist. "Our studies show that if global warming isn't controlled, we could lose two-thirds of the world's polar bears by mid-century and all of them by the end of the century. But minimal, well-regulated hunts by indigenous people aren't the problem."

Also, despite some international trade in polar products, there is limited evidence linking such trade to harvest levels. Harvesting and "intra-national trade" would continue at some level regardless of restrictions on trade across borders. Therefore, it is not clear that CITES uplisting would affect harvest, even in the subpopulations that presently are suffering most severely from warming-induced habitat loss.

The main threat facing the bears is loss of their sea ice habitat from human-caused climate change—not regulated trade, scientists say. In a 2010 paper in Nature, Amstrup and others showed that "on the ground" management activities such as harvest regulation and limits on trade can only affect the persistence of polar bears if humans also stop the rise in greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution. Therefore, CITES regulations have little to do with the ultimate fate of the bears, and actually may be a distraction from the need to take action on GHGs.

Because of all the interest and publicity regarding CITES, the IUCN/SSC Polar Bear Specialist Group, the body of scientific expertise on polar bears, recently published its position on CITES. The PBSG position emphasized that, without GHG mitigation all polar bears ultimately will disappear and that the most likely outcome for polar bears, given business as usual GHG emissions, was a reduction of more than half of the current world population by mid-century. It also, however, concluded that the proposed CITES uplisting was unlikely to confer a conservation benefit to polar bears.

There was some difference of interpretation about CITES among PBSG members, but the majority statement emphasized the need to focus on GHG pollution and disappearing habitat. The statement from PBSG can be seen here.

Although both international trade and local harvest could, in the future, be more of a threat to how long polar bears may persist, it is critical now to maintain the focus on the fact that their ultimate existence depends on sensible GHG reductions. Regardless of recent media hype, that is where we need to keep our focus.


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