Polar bear hunting, right or wrong? Conservation organisations in great white bear brawl

A furious debate has erupted between leading conservationists over the issue of polar bear hunting and the sale of the animals’ pelts.

On the face of it, you would expect all conservation organisations to be opposed to trophy hunting of an animal listed as vulnerable on the IUCN’s Red List, which has a population in serious decline. However, in recent years big groups such as Greenpeace and WWF have shifted their focus from opposing hunting to concentrating on the environmental threats the animal faces, lending their tacit support to controlled harvests (which can include trophy hunts).

It’s a move that has incensed one of the Greenpeaces’s founding members, Paul Watson, who has since set up the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, prompting him to accuse the leaders of the organisation of betraying its fundamental ethos.

‘The Greenpeace Foundation International has completely betrayed everything it once stood for,’ Watson fumed in a Facebook post that has been shared over 60,000 times. ‘The people who run Greenpeace today have literally smashed the foundation of ideals and principles that the Greenpeace name was built upon.’

He continues: ‘Their endorsement today along with the World Wildlife Fund of Polar bear hunting is a despicable act that will condemn hundreds of these magnificent animals to suffering and death.

‘Already facing the threat of climate change, the impact of oil exploration and the diminishment of food resources, the polar bear will continue to be hunted by trophy hunters so that a very small handful of Inuit guides can keep their jobs of leading overly privileged white hunters to their victims. Guiding white hunters to kill Polar bears is not a tradition nor does it have any validity as being a part of Inuit culture.’

Naturally, not everyone agrees with Watson, whose words have ignited a bitter debate in the conservation community. Writing in The Conversation, Martina Tyrrell, a Human Geographer at the University of Exeter, argues that the Sea Shepherd director has misrepresented Greenpeace, and that he is clinging to version of ‘outmoded environmentalism in conflict with the human inhabitants of environments at risk.’

Greenpeace and the WWF have declared that the current level of legal polar bear hunting is sustainable, and they say the campaign against such hunting is diverting resources away from the real fight for the bears’ future, which is directly connected to climate change and the threat that the oil industry poses to polar bears in their natural environment. However, Greenpeace’s executive director, Russel Norman, refutes Watson’s claims that the organisation actively supports the practise of rich white hunters killing the animals.

‘Greenpeace has campaigned for many years to protect the Arctic in all sorts of different ways,’ says Norman. ‘And so to make this claim that somehow Greenpeace supports the trophy hunting of polar bears is completely false.’

There are an estimated 20,000–25,000 polar bears alive in the world, but they're severely vulnerable to climate change
There are an estimated 20,000–25,000 polar bears alive in the world, but they’re severely vulnerable to climate change

The row flared after the United States declared that it would stop pursuing an international ban on the commercial trade in polar bear hides, with CITES conceding that terrain degradation was a bigger danger to the bears than hunting. The announcement was welcomed by Inuit organisations and, more surprisingly, by mainstream environmental groups who have been arguing for some time that man-made climate change is a far greater threat to the world’s wild polar bear population than controlled hunting.

At present, hunting of the magnificent animal is controlled by the 1973 multilateral Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears, adopted after their number was seen to decline dramatically in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The current population is around 25,000, with the vast majority living in northern Canada, and the rest scattered around the polar regions of far northern Europe, Russia and Alaska.

Hunting of the animal is illegal in Norway and Russia, but the US, Canada, and Greenland allow and manage a ‘subsistence harvest’ of polar bears. Under this arrangement, traditional communities are permitted to kill a quota of between 600–800 bears each year, which represents 3-4% of the estimated size of the total population. Bear meat is eaten by humans and dogs, and their pelts can be sold for up to CN$6,000. Some Inuits choose to allocate a percentage of their quota to guiding ‘sport’ hunters, which is permitted under the law, and this constitutes a major cause of contention.

The IUCN notes that sport hunting can be a major source of income for remote settlements because the financial return from the hunt is far more than the value of the bear’s hide, and in recent years, Greenpeace and the WWF have moved away from a purely animal-orientated stance to take the needs of indigenous Canadian communities into account, especially as their traditional lifestyle is increasingly threatened by the huge oil industry.

Watson and other opponents disavow this approach, however, and say the involvement of rich white hunters using high-powered rifles to kill an already threatened animal has nothing to do with culture or tradition. Watson also says that without an international ban on the sales of polar bear body parts, including hides, poachers will be incentivised to continue killing the animal in illegal hunts, before selling body parts using forged documents. The IUCN estimates that, while poaching isn’t a large problem in Canada, around 100 polar bears are illegally killed each year in Russia.

Since 2008, the US Endangered Species Act has listed polar bears as ‘threatened’, which makes importing bear parts into the US illegal. Americans had formed the biggest chunk of the tourist hunt market, and so this prompted a drop in the number of guided sport hunts taking place. In 2010-11, for example, around 26 bears were killed for trophies.

A good solution for everyone, perhaps, could be offered by the rise of environmental and nature-based tourism, which could see Inuit guides using all their skill and knowledge to track down wild polar bears for visitors who are more interested in shooting them with their cameras than their high-powered rifles. A good image of a polar bear alive in its natural environment is the ultimate trophy, surely.