Polar bears are a hot commodity. With demand from collectors in Russia and China on the rise, their skins often fetch $5000 at auction. The asking prices for mounted trophies are even higher. These dollar figures worry conservationists, who had hoped to convince an international convention to restrict trade in polar bear parts. But they lost today when delegates to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) meeting in Bangkok voted down the motion. "We are obviously disappointed," said David Hayes in statement. Hayes is deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, which had proposed the heightened protection.
Polar bears are in danger of extinction because their habitat is melting. Summer sea ice has shrunk by 15% to 20% over the past 3 decades, and another half of what's left could vanish by the end of the century. Other threats include hunting, pollution, and collisions with ships. Roughly 800 polars bears are killed each year, most hunted for their meat. Over the last decade, skins and other body parts were exported primarily from Canada, where Inuit have annual quotas for their hunt. Scientists estimate that between 20,000 and 25,000 polar bears remain in five countries: Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Norway, Russia, and the United States. Some populations are stable or increasing, but the total number is thought to be decreasing.
CITES offers several levels of protection. Polar bears are listed on Appendix II, which means that countries that export body parts must vouch that the animals were legally killed and that the deaths will not harm the survival of the species. Appendix I is stricter: It outlaws commercial trade in the species, while still allowing sport hunting under certain conditions. The United States and Russia, which both already ban sales within their borders, proposed to shift polar bears from Appendix II to I, or "up-list" them, arguing that the species is in danger of extinction and "affected by trade." They were backed by several conservation organizations, such as the International Fund for Animal Welfare.