Who are they Murderers of Polar Bears?

POLAR BEARS ARE THE ICON OF THE ARCTIC. They are the top predators of the north, associated with endurance and extreme adaptations to harsh weather conditions. Their survival is directly linked to the presence of sea ice.

(excerpts from the book Polar Bear & Human by Ole Liodden; edited by Alex Rose. An Ocean Geographic sponsored project)

Between 2010–16, an average of 821 polar bears were killed each year. In 2012, 665 bears were hunted in Canada alone, representing more than 70% of all polar bear hunting in the Arctic.

POLAR BEARS ARE THE ICON OF THE ARCTIC. They are the top predators of the north, associated with endurance and extreme adaptations to harsh weather conditions. Their survival is directly linked to the presence of sea ice. In the last decade, polar bears have become the symbol of global warming. Activists use images of polar bears on thin ice – or no ice at all – to illustrate loss of sea ice and the need to protect polar bears’ fragile habitat. If sea ice continues to disappear, there will almost certainly be much larger consequences than reduced habitat for polar bears. Indeed, persistent loss of sea ice could signal the collapse of an entire ecosystem, the effects of which will likely be serious for all species on earth – including humans.

Challenges related to warmer temperatures and decreasing Arctic sea ice clearly affect polar bears and other ice-dependent animals. The entire Arctic ecosystem is changing quickly, and it may prove difficult for Arctic animals like polar bears to survive in the future. The survival of polar bears is often thought of in terms of their ability to adapt to environmental changes imposed by global warming, but it is important to understand that the most direct factor decimating polar bear populations is hunting. Indeed, polar bears may starve and become weak and unable to reproduce as a result of climate change, yet they have some potential for adapting and persisting despite the increasing lack of habitat. What 800–1,000 bears each year cannot survive is being hunted and killed directly by humans.

Climate change and sea ice loss ice have dominated discussions about polar bear conservation in recent years. Although a warmer climate may largely determine the future distribution of polar bears, the vast majority of population reductions over the past 30 years are attributable to unsustainable hunting. At least for the next 10–15 years, hunting will likely continue to play a major role in determining polar bear population trends.

Polar bear hunting in the United States (Alaska), Canada, Greenland, Norway (Svalbard) and Russia has cultural and economic importance for some native settlements in the Arctic. Traditional subsistence polar bear hunting – for meat and clothes – has changed dramatically over the last 50 years, transforming an Arctic resource into money. Rising prices of polar bear skins and wealthy trophy hunters have motivated many hunters and communities to participate in polar bear hunting as a commercial industry. Polar bear – once a symbol of power in the old Inuit traditions – is now for many hunters only a symbol of cash.

Overall polar bear hunting activity in the Arctic peaked in the 1960s with approximately 9,272 bears killed from 1963–69, an average of 1,325 polar bears killed per year. The 1970s revealed lower total polar bear hunting activity for the Arctic. Hunters killed an estimated total of 9,799 polar bears during the 1980s. Total Arctic hunting in the 1990s accounted for approximately 10,031 killed bears, the highest activity since the 1960s. Polar bear hunting activity for the entire Arctic decreased slightly to approximately 9,570 kills in the 2000s. The lowest total Arctic polar bear hunting activity was recorded from 2010–16 at approximately 5,745 kills, or 821 per year on average. Canada did the opposite and increased its hunting activity to 665 bears killed in 2012. For 2010-16, Canada represented more than 70% of all polar bear hunting in the Arctic.

Polar bears' reproductive rates are among the lowest of all mammals. They typically have a maximum of five litters per lifespan, as well as small litter sizes, long dependency periods and high cub mortality. Their low reproductive rates lead to slow population recovery rates requiring that hunting be managed carefully or banned.

The growth rate for polar bears is biologically low because of low cub survival, late age of maturity, low litter size and long weaning period. Assuming unrealistic survival rates of 95% for all age groups, pregnancy every third year for all females older than five years, and two cubs in all litters, the theoretical maximum growth rate for polar bear populations is only 10%. However, this high growth rate is not possible in wild populations of polar bears and the maximum growth rate estimated in nature is approximately 6.5%. Instead, assuming average observed survival rates, a litter size of 1.64 and a litter interval of 3.6 years, the average growth rate for polar bears is closer to 2.0%.

Estimating polar bear populations is expensive and difficult because they often live in low densities in remote habitats with harsh conditions. Although population estimates have generally improved in recent decades, information remains poor or outdated for some subpopulations. Taken together, the aggregated population estimates along with some unknown values describe a 19% global decline from about 28,000 polar bears in 1973 to about 22,750 bears in 2016. Unfortunately, the statistical methods used to determine these numbers are frequently not as robust as they initially seem and the can artificially inflate estimates. Two of the most common statistical approaches applied in census projects are pooled data and extrapolation.

When information about certain age groups in a population model is limited or missing, researchers have the option of discarding the whole model or incorporating information from other age groups, time series or populations. The pooled data approach can allow research projects to appear successful at estimating complete series of survival rates, growth rates or other important information without attracting much negative attention. This method has the potential to lead to grossly overestimated population data.

Extrapolation can result in hazardous assumptions as well. The process of extrapolation is to project, extend, or expand known data or observations into an unknown or unobserved situation by assuming the actual recorded trends will pertain to the new scenario. As such, extrapolation assumes that existing trends or observations will continue in or be applicable to an unknown area, which is oftentimes not the case because it does not take into account varying habitat use. In general, using empirical relationships to scale up can be perilous and inapplicable to management purposes. Given the statistical weakness and practical limitations of extrapolation, people accepting population studies derived from this method might as well be peering into a crystal ball to predict the future.

More extreme population estimates have trended in recent years. The main problem with this is that it leads to increased hunting quotas. To reduce the dangers of extrapolation, researchers may be better off focusing on conducting short-term aerial surveys with multiple observation crews and planes. It is also important in the world of science to use common sense when a population appears to increase or decrease much more than expected.

Few topics in the world of wildlife management engage people more than trophy hunting, and the polar bear is one of the most exclusive species for trophy hunters to pursue. With a legitimate license, a guide team and the ability to pay lofty expenses, one can legally hunt polar bears in certain areas of Canada. Many believe trophy hunting is an important source of income for some Inuit settlements, but what is the actual economic value of the industry? Are alternative sources of income, like ecotourism, potentially better? Is it even possible to justify continued “conservation hunting” and “sustainable hunting” by foreign trophy hunters, or is it simply time to ban polar bear trophy hunting altogether?

Polar bear trophy hunting started in Alaska and Svalbard in the late 1940s. The industry grew fast over the next two decades and more guides and outfit companies entered the business. Polar bear trophy hunting in Alaska was usually done by high-performance aircraft that made tracking much easier and faster than hunting by dog sled or on foot. Traditional hunting could not compete with the efficient aircraft and native hunters were demotivated. By 1970, 94.9% of the polar bears taken were killed by trophy hunters. More than 3,000 polar bears were killed as trophies in Alaska from 1957–72. The Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) of December 1972 and the Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears later in 1973, banned polar bear trophy hunting in Alaska and all guides, pilots and outfitters left the trophy hunting business.

Trophy hunting in Svalbard was not as popular as in Alaska at the same time, but bears were still relentlessly hunted by sealers (22, 018 bears), trappers (6,051 bears), and weather station workers (1,459 bears) from 1871-1973. In 1973 the Norwegian government banned all polar bear hunting in Svalbard and trophy hunters had to find new areas for their activity. Polar bear trophy hunting had also been banned in Russia since 1956, in the US since 1972, and in Greenland in 1973. Thus, the only region remaining for polar bear trophy hunting was the Canadian Arctic.

Trophy hunting in Arctic Canada did not exist before ‘70s. In Inuit traditions it was important for polar bear hunters to treat the polar bears with respect, before and after death. Killing for fun was not in harmony with tradition and many Inuit hunters and leaders were, and still are, against the trophy hunting industry. The Inuit subsistence economy changed dramatically in the 1960s and people began to use hunting to earn money instead. By using traditional hunting methods, polar bear trophy hunting in Arctic Canada was allowed beginning in January 1970. Polar bear hunting permits referred to as “tags” had to be allocated from each settlement’s total hunting quota, and local hunters could not reuse trophy hunters' unused tags.

To reduce the impact of the seal skin market collapse in the 1980s, Canadian government authorities included polar bear trophy hunting in the definition of tourism. The idea was to boost the local economies of Inuit settlements with trophy hunting to compensate for reduced income from seal skins. Inuit communities were slow to embrace the new opportunities of the trophy hunting industry and some settlements had year–long debates about whether to offer trophy hunting or not.

Canadian trophy hunting statistics show an overall total of 2,273 recorded kills from 1970–2016. The Canadian governmental efforts in the 1980s resulted in a moderate increase in the trophy hunting industry, but the main boost came after the US reopened polar bear trophy importation in 1994. The annual number of trophy kills almost doubled thereafter and continued to grow until it peaked with 143 trophy bears killed in 2007. Then, the US ban on polar bear trophies and skins in 2008 resulted in a 73% reduction in Canada's trophy hunting activity between 2007–09, and it never managed to recover. This clearly reveals that the trophy hunting business is highly sensitive to import restrictions of foreign countries.

Polar bear trophy hunting is the most expensive type of legal hunting in the northern hemisphere and only occurs in Canada. The first year the industry exceeded an estimated value of USD $1,000,000 was 1987, and it doubled in fewer than ten years. The steep increase continued through the 1990s and peaked in 2007 with a total value of approximately USD $5,354,000 annually in Nunavut and the North West Territories combined.

From 2010–16, after the collapse in 2008, the polar bear trophy hunting industry stabilized around a total value of USD $1,647,000. A large portion of hunters' payments ends up in the pockets of international outfitters, never reaching the local Inuit settlements. A 2005 study estimated the average local economic value of polar bear trophy hunting to about 52% of the total trophy price. The local economic value is the amount of money from the trophy hunters' payments that actually remains in local settlements. The highest estimated local value in Nunavut and NWT was approximately USD $2,856,000 in 2007, but it dropped rapidly to about USD $665,000 four years later. From 2010–2016, the local economic value stabilized around USD $876,000.

A study analysing the local economic value of trophy hunting from 2000–2009 revealed that only three out of 31 settlements in the NWT and Nunavut received 6% or more of their community income from trophy hunts. Ten settlements received 1–5% of their community income from polar bear trophy hunting, and the remaining 18 settlements received nothing or less than 1% of their community income from the industry. Twenty trophy-hunting settlements operated in Nunavut from 2000–2009, and 12 of them had left the industry by the following decade. If trophy hunting were important to local economies and provided a fair cut, why would so many settlements have withdrawn from the industry?

Sometimes trophy hunting is instead called “conservation hunting”, which implies that some of the money trophy hunters pay helps make wildlife management possible. While it is obvious that an animal has to be killed during a trophy hunt, not many people are aware of the negative effects of commercial trophy hunting activity on polar bear population dynamics. The population and distribution of polar bears can change negatively as a result of trophy hunting, and this fact cannot be associated with any form of conservation.

When hunting wild animals, the most desirable – usually the largest – individuals have been killed. This kind of selection so common in trophy hunting forces “reverse evolution” – or evolutionary degeneration – by increasing less desirable genetic characteristics in a population. There are studies demonstrating the genetic results of human-induced selection in tusk-less elephants and bighorn sheep with diminutive horns, but no one has studied this in polar bears, a lack of information that hunting organizations use to argue that trophy hunting has a minimal or no effect on polar bear population diversity. The selective removal of healthy, strong animals from the population takes the fittest genes out of the gene pool while smaller, weaker bears procreate and ensure smaller, weaker offspring. Thus, the bigger, stronger animals that would more likely survive a future with global warming are removed from the population while bears less likely to survive habitat loss are not killed. No one knows how seriously selective trophy hunting will affect the survival of polar bears in the coming years.

Killing endangered or rare animals to save them is wrong from ethical, economic, biological and conservation perspectives. The idea behind conservation hunting has no place in modern conservation. It is a relic from the pioneering safari organizations founded by big game hunters. “Modern trophy hunting” is a new approach to using wildlife resources in which tourists “shoot” animals with cameras instead of guns. The trophies they take home are images for memories, prints or social media – not dead animals. This modern business opportunity benefits from the fact that the same animal can be sold more than once and to more than one person. Long-term, this approach may benefit both polar bears and local settlements.

Churchill, Canada is a prime example of how well this can work. In 2011, the economic value of their polar bear viewing tourism was estimated at CAD $7.2 million, about 5.5 times higher than the value of Canadian polar bear hunting in the same period. If Churchill is the polar bear capital of the world, Svalbard is its bigger sister city. No other area in the Arctic receives more tourists who want to experience and photograph polar bears. Svalbard is very attractive for wilderness-seeking people with its great landscape, northern location and complete ban on polar bear hunting.  Kaktovik on Barter Island, along the north-eastern coast of Alaska, is an up and coming polar bear ecotourism location.

Occasionally, there are human/bear confrontations that lead to injuries, or at worst, the death of a human or polar bear. The “problem bear” always takes the blame. A problem bear is “a polar bear that has come into contact with humans, their property, or both, and is destroyed to preserve the life of one or more persons or when public safety and property are at stake.” However, in many situations, whether a bear becomes a problem or not is largely up to humans. Knowing polar bear safety rules is important for avoiding dangerous situations and preventing escalating conflicts with bears. Many “problem bears” are killed annually because of human provocations or a lack of understanding of polar bear behaviour. The reality is people live in or regularly visit polar bear territory, and encounters with bears are common. The good news is that changing human behaviour and adding safety installations to buildings and structures effectively reduce close encounters with polar bears.

The final piece of this puzzle is that of the polar bear skin trade. Praised for their large size and rarity, these skins symbolize luxury and social status, which makes them popular among the growing number of wealthy people, especially in China and Russia. The core of the international polar bear skin trade is the Canadian tag system. A legal fur tag makes it possible to prove the origin and legality of the skin. With export permits, import permits and a tag system it should theoretically be possible to track each skin from the hunter to the end buyer.

The fur tag functions as a certificate for legal trade and must be permanently attached to the skin at all times. Polar bear skins are sent to fur auctions, which attract international buyers. After a polar bear skin has gone through an auction house and is sold to an international buyer, it is ready for export. A CITES export permit must be issued before a polar bear skin may be legally exported. There are different regulations for importing polar bear skins, depending on the importing country. In the US and Mexico all importation of polar bear skins and body parts is illegal, even if the parts have validated export permits. Fur dealers often assure polar bear skin buyers that the hunting is limited and sustainable, and that the bear was taken during subsistence hunting. This is not always true; thus, some buyers purchase polar bear skins without knowing the real circumstances and challenges the hunted bears faced.

Canada and Greenland have been the top two exporting countries of polar bear skins since the 1973 Agreement. Statistics from the CITES database reveal that from 1976–2015, Canada exported 11,581 polar bear skins and Greenland exported 2,141 skins. From 2011– 2015, all international polar bear skin exports originated in Canada, other than nine skins from Greenland. With increasing demand, mainly from China, and high skin prices, 80–90% of the skins from Canada's hunted polar bears end up as commercial exports. Japan, Denmark, China, Norway and the US were the five largest polar bear skin importers from 1976–2015. These countries were the destination for 10,762 skins, representing 71.6% of the international market. China's exploding interest in luxury polar bear skins may push the demand curve further upward in the coming years.

Most authors describe the Canadian polar bear skin trade as a legal market based on “subsistence” and “sustainable” hunting. However, when polar bear hunters and skin dealers want to increase their profits during periods of peak skin prices, hunting activity pushes beyond the allowed legal hunting quotas and trade occurs regardless. Such activity defines the vague transition between legal and illegal hunting activity and warrants greater scrutiny. Quota increases will most likely continue in the coming years, fuelled by sensational reports of growing numbers of “virtual” polar bears from creative data mining, and by the Maximum Sustainable Yield philosophy used to calculate “sustainable” hunting levels in Canada.

Final prices of prime polar bear rugs or mounted bears in China have reached USD $100,000, approximately the same price as 1 kg of rhino horn, 2–3 kg of cocaine or 2.5 kg of gold. With polar bear product prices in this range, organized polar bear poaching and skin smuggling move closer to reality, if they are not already occurring. The main area for illegal polar bear hunting and skin trading has been the Russian Arctic. Fur tag switching also has been identified as an issue in Canada. The combination of weak penalties and a low risk of prosecution might create an insufficient deterrent to outweigh the financial rewards of the illegal wildlife trade. Poverty might also be motivating poaching in exporting countries. Poaching can be lucrative, hence the activity thrives where rural communities have few alternative sources of income.

In this instance, let us compare the predicament of polar bears to that of African rhinos. In the years 2007–16, hunters, mainly poachers, killed 6,115 African rhinos in South Africa, while mainly legal hunters killed about 8,360 polar bears in the Arctic. Of those polar bears, hunters legally killed 7,441 in Canada, Greenland and Alaska. In Russia, poachers illegally killed about 903 bears, and 16 died as “problem bears” in Svalbard.

During this period, hunters killed about 37% more polar bears than African rhinos, which are protected by armed guards against poaching, yet the polar bear hunting activity is considered sustainable. With the loss of sea ice and legal hunting, the polar bear’s race to extinction is much faster than that of the African rhino. To avert their demise, we must call for significant reductions in quotas and ban the international polar bear trade altogether. Otherwise, the zoo may be the only place for future generations to see this ethereal ice bear.

(excerpts from the book Polar Bear & Human by Ole J Liodden; edited by Alex Rose. An Ocean Geographic sponsored project). Photographs by Ole J Liodden and Michael AW ( OG 48)  

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