After years of pushing for a ban on the international trade of polar bear parts—in China, a good quality pelt can still fetch up to $20,000—it recently emerged that the US has quietly backed down from its campaign.
In Canada's Arctic, Inuit groups and local governments, which fought a ban, are glad to hear it: they say that the polar bear hunt is sustainable, and there's no reason to restrict it. But some scientists, who worry these bears are under threat from a rapidly melting Arctic, aren't so sure. Images of polar bears, starving and stranded, have become inextricable from the messaging around climate change. When it comes to the debate about whether we should be harvesting polar bear parts for sale, it can be hard to separate facts from emotion.
Canada's north is home to about two-thirds of the world's polar bears, which make up 13 of the world's 19 subpopulations. It's also the only country that allows the commercial trade of polar bear parts. "The polar bear is socially, culturally, and economically important for Inuit," said Adamie Delisle-Alaku of Makivik Corporation, the land claim corporation that represents about 12,000 Inuit in Nunavik, Northern Quebec. He spoke to Motherboard over the phone from Kuujjuaq. Selling furs at auction, he continued, is just a small part of it.
About 16,000 polar bears live in Canada, according to Environment Canada. Every year, roughly 300 are sold on the international market, a number that has stayed fairly steady.
Strict quotas are put in place to make sure an appropriate number of polar bears is harvested, Delisle-Alaku continued. And, contrary to conservationists' and some scientists' concerns, the Inuit maintain there are plenty of bears around.
"We do acknowledge climate change. We are the ones living it the most"
"There are more and more bears," Delisle-Alaku said. "In the media, they're portrayed as skinny bears clinging onto the last little piece of ice, which is not entirely true," he continued. "The majority of them are thriving, and they're in very good condition."
Motherboard also contacted the University of Alberta's Andrew Derocher, a well-known polar bear biologist. According to him, some of Canada's polar bear populations are probably in decline. In a recent study, he attached GPS collars to polar bears to track these animals' movements, and then contrasted it to satellite images showing sea ice levels from 2004 to 2012. The study found that two-thirds of bears in the Beaufort Sea swam longer than 50 km in 2012, up from one-third in 2004. He said that the number of bears in this group could be down "as much as 50 per cent" from recent historical levels.
"I've always supported sustainable harvest," Derocher said. "But I think Canada's getting close to unsustainable," at least in certain populations.
"Every bear we take [from that population] means we're keeping it lower than it has been in recent historical times," Derocher continued. Of Canada's 13 populations, he believes, possibly four are under such threat that the planned hunt is now unsustainable.
For the Inuit, hunting polar bears is a way of life. "Traditional knowledge and science have been clashing," Delisle-Alaku said, noting that Makivik does plenty of science of its own, collecting samples of polar bear fat and DNA to track the health of these animals.
Derocher acknowledges that hunting polar bears isn't what will drive them to extinction. "It's a limited time event anyway," he said. "It's very clear to me that we will not be harvesting polar bears, if we look ahead in the future."
The biggest threat is climate change. When deciding how to manage these populations going forward, southern scientists and local groups will have to find a way to see eye-to-eye.
Delisle-Alaku, for one, takes issue with the politicization of an animal that has provided sustenance to generations of Inuit. The polar bear has suddenly been embraced as the "poster child" for climate change by people who've never known them outside of a zoo.
"We do acknowledge climate change. We are the ones living it the most," said Delisle-Alaku. "But we're not talking about climate change. We're talking about polar bears."