The United States (U.S.) proposal to list the polar bear, Ursus Maritimus, on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) was a hotly debated issue among member states and NGOs during the 16th Conference of the Parties (CoP16) to CITES in Bangkok, Thailand, March 3-15, 2013 (see Rosie's article in this issue for a general report on CITES CoP16). This was the second attempt by the U.S. to transfer polar bear to Appendix I since COP15 in Doha, Qatar in 2010. In both cases the proposal did not receive the required two-thirds majority vote to pass.

If the polar bear was transferred from Appendix II to Appendix I an international trade ban on polar bear products would be applied to Canada and more specifically to Inuit in Canada’s Arctic regions, who primarily harvest polar bears for subsistence purposes and trade certain parts (i.e. hides) as a by-product of their hunt. Although parts from half of the polar bears harvested annually in Canada enter into trade, this trade contributes greatly to Inuit livelihoods at the community level where economic means and options are few. It should be noted that Canada is the only CITES member and polar bear range state that allows harvesters to export polar bear products.

Inuit view the Appendix II designation of polar bear as appropriate because the measure is in line with existing wildlife co-management regimes that strictly regulate and limit the harvest of polar bear in Inuit territories under modern land claim treaties in Canada. Harvest levels are set for those subpopulations that have sufficient enough numbers to allow for sustainable hunting. Annual community quotas are determined through this process and the hunting tags are distributed among the communities located within a given subpopulation area. The fact that Inuit are trading parts derived from a portion of their sustainable harvest is what makes this trade sustainable and not a threat to the species. 

Turning back to the CoP, a remarkable difference between CoP15 and CoP16 was the way in which the European Union (EU) member states intervened and voted on the respective polar bear proposals. The EU member states vote as a block of 27 countries, so their votes are very influential. At CoP15, the EU members voted against the U.S. proposal without any extraordinary interventions. In the lead up to CoP16 however, the EU members did not reach a consensus on which way to vote on the proposal and therefore had no mandate to vote Yes or No. Some of the members were in support of the U.S. proposal while others were not in favour.

In a last ditch effort to agree a voting mandate, the EU delegation undertook meetings with the polar bear ranges states (Canada, U.S., Russia, Norway, and Greenland/Denmark) at the conference to negotiate a compromise in the way of an amendment that would retain polar bear on Appendix II with certain conditions. Despite the EU’s efforts, the range states were unable to agree. The U.S., with the support of Russia, was adamant on listing the polar bear on Appendix I and did not want to diverge from this position.

With no consensus among range states, the EU delegation nevertheless intervened with their amendment during the tabling of the U.S. polar bear proposal in committee and sought a vote on the amendment. That amendment did not reach the two-thirds majority for passage, which left the U.S. proposal, in its original form, to be voted upon next. That vote did not come close to reaching the two-thirds threshold as well with the EU deciding to abstain from the vote. The results were telling with 52% voting against the U.S. proposal and the number of abstentions (46) out-numbering the No votes (42) and the Yes votes (38). In the CITES voting rules, abstentions are not counted, so the percentage only includes the yes and no votes cast.

The Inuit of Canada made their presence at CoP16 very well-known not only during the lobbying activities within the conference, but also through their interventions during the tabling of the EU amendment and the U.S. proposal. In all, there were four Inuit representatives, three from Canada and one from Greenland, who spoke very effectively on the reasons why the EU amendment was not acceptable and why the U.S. proposal did not satisfy the criteria for listing polar bear on Appendix I. For Inuit in Canada, who number around 55,000, this lobbying effort was an immense undertaking that dates back to 2009 in planning for the previous CoP in Doha, Qatar.

A big part of the focus for Inuit in lobbying the world to support their trade is tied to the recognition of their successful co-management approach to conserving polar bears and the sustainable use of this species as a resource for food and livelihoods. To Inuit, these aspects go hand-in-hand, not only on a management level but also in cultural and socio-economic contexts.

John Cheechoo is Director, Environment and Wildlife, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, Ottawa, Canada

Photo: Inuit delegates at the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami CITES booth