The major threat to polar bears that no-one’s even talking about

polar bears
Tracy Keeling

Polar bears have become a gut-wrenching symbol of the breakdown of our planet. But the climate crisis isn’t the only major threat they face. Speaking at a recent event in parliament, Norwegian conservationist Ole Liodden pointed out that something else is killing about 800 to 1,000 polar bears a year and yet no-one’s even talking about it.

Ban trophy hunting

The Campaign to Ban Trophy Hunting (CBTH) organised the event in parliament on 22 January. The UK government is currently holding a public consultation into whether to prohibit the import of ‘trophies’ into the country. The practice of killing animals for fun – including endangered species – is increasingly popular with UK hunters.

Speakers at the event included renowned explorer Ranulph Fiennes, environment minister Zac Goldsmith, and South African economist and conservationist Ross Harvey.

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Going, going, gone

Liodden, who is a conservationist, photographer, author and expedition leader, also spoke at the event. He began:

I think most of you know that polar bears have a problem with climate change. The ice is decreasing and their habitat is decreasing. Especially where I’m working in Svalbard, 52% of the ice is gone.

In 2017, the severity of the problem polar bears have with climate change was illustrated by a devastating video and photographs of a starving polar bear in the Canadian Arctic. One of those who documented the emaciated, weak, and heartbreaking state of the animal explained:

I can’t say that this bear was starving because of climate change, but I do know that polar bears rely on a platform of sea ice from which to hunt. A fast-warming Arctic means that sea ice is disappearing for increasingly longer periods of time each year. That means many more bears will get stranded on land, where they can’t pursue the seals, walruses, and whales that are their prey and where they will slowly starve to death.

The usual suspects

But, as Liodden detailed, polar bears face another threat. And, as with the climate crisis, it’s human-induced:

There are also other threats, mainly hunting. Last decade, between 800 and 1,000 polar bears are killed every year. [On] average, between 1963 to today… 991 polar bears have been killed every year and you never heard about it.

Liodden began a project called Polar Bears and Humans in 2016 which investigates polar bear hunting. At the event, the conservationist explained that there are currently between “20,000 to 25,000 polar bears left in the Arctic, in the wild”. Yet people are killing them at a rate of about 800-1,000 per year.

The present estimated global polar bear population of between approximately 20,000-30,000 is not dissimilar to that of other iconic animals. Some estimates put the population of remaining wild lions at only 15,000. Meanwhile, rhino populations worldwide stood at just over 27,000 in 2019. But Liodden says people are killing polar bears at a rate faster than that of rhinos:

If you look at this compared to Africa. If you look at the rhinos, between 2007 and 2016, about 6,115 rhinos were killed. If you look at the polar bears, 8,335 polar bears were killed in the same time. But nobody cares.

He also explained that the causes of polar bear deaths differ somewhat to animals in Africa:

With the rhinos it’s a big battle against poaching and with illegal activity. But in the Arctic, it’s labelled as sustainable and subsistence hunting. And we have to do something about it.

As Liodden highlights, one major threat to African wildlife is poaching, which currently isn’t a major issue in the Arctic. However, all the aforementioned animals are targets for trophy hunting.

Big money?

Hunting comes in a number of forms. Subsistence hunting is where people kill animals for food and clothing. In the Arctic, Liodden believes this can be practised sustainably. It’s commercial hunting – such as trophy hunting and for the commercial fur trade – that he takes issue with.

Trophy hunting is a very controversial practice, especially in a world of dramatically declining biodiversity. In the court of public opinion in the UK, it has no place in a civilised world. Among many conservationists and experts it is morally indefensible and a threat to conservation. They also say there are non-lethal alternatives to hunting, such as photo-tourism and conservation-compatible agriculture, that are ripe for development and can provide income for communities that have to co-exist with currently trophy-hunted animals.

But a number of conservationists argue for its continuation. They say that “well managed trophy hunting” provides funds for local communities and conservation, and stops the removal of wild animals for land conversion to agriculture and other uses. They also invariably question whether the alternatives to hunting are currently viable.

Liodden addressed the argument that trophy hunting revenues provide funding streams to local communities:

It costs about $47,000 to do a trophy hunt. And you might think this is great news for the Inuit settlements. It sounds like big money. But only 52% on average is actually ending in the local settlements.

If you’re looking at the statistics, between 1980 and 2009, 23 of 25 Inuit [settlements] were engaged in trophy hunting. But after 2009, only eight are left. Why have 17 settlements quit this business if it’s so important?

The conservationist said that only three of the eight remaining settlements that engage in trophy hunting earn more than five per cent of their total income from it. Meanwhile, he gave an example of what’s possible through communities taking up non-lethal alternatives:

Just look at the neighbour settlement in Alaska, it’s called Kaktovik. With 300 people, there are five boat operators doing polar bear viewing for photographers and tourists. They have a two month season and two small hotels. In these two months, they are earning $1.5m which is 70% more than all polar bear trophy hunting in the world.

They can sell the same polar bear more than one time to more than one person. It’s a huge opportunity.

Animal accessories

Liodden further explained that the hunting of polar bears is often for their skins:

The main problem is the increasing demand. More people, more wealthy people, want the luxury of polar bear skins in their rooms. In Norway, it costs about $20,000 for a polar bear skin. In China, it’s now up to $78,000. That’s about the same price as one kilo of rhino horn or two and a half kilos of cocaine. And this is a trigger for the illegal organisations who already have business in Africa, I’m afraid they will soon also start in the Arctic.

Canada, which almost two-thirds of the remaining polar bears call home, is where most of the hunting happens. In 2019, Samuel Iverson, head of the polar bear management unit for the Canadian Wildlife Service, insisted to National Geographic that the country’s hunting quota “is not endangering polar bears”. Iverson said that assessments happen and quotas are adjusted “if in a given subpopulation there’s a concern”.

But Liodden doesn’t agree. He told the event that:

trophy hunters are targeting the biggest, healthiest and strongest animals. This is reverse selection. It is survival of the smallest, sickest and the less physically fit animals.

Furthermore, he said:

[The polar bear is] naturally rare. It has a very low survival rate, sometimes less than 50%. It also has a low reproduction rate. And it’s also struggling with climate change.

Given the combination of all these factors, Liodden says polar bears are “the least suitable animal in the Arctic for trophy hunting”.

A model for the future

Norway’s Svalbard, where Liodden works, doesn’t allow the hunting of polar bears. Its population of the magnificent animal is stable. That’s despite the fact polar bears there have had to grapple with the loss of over 50% of the archipelago’s ice since the 1980s.

As National Geographic reported, he believes Svalbard is a “a model for the future”. He says ending trophy hunting of polar bears and the commercial skin trade is “the only way the polar bears have a chance in the warming future”.

Featured image via YouTube – BBC Earth

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    1. The CBTH is a company registered in London (Company Number 12200178) and has no place lobbying in Parliament – if it was a defence company, questions would be asked. Eduardo Goncalves, the brains behind CBTH, is an animal rights (AR) campaigner, a fundraising trade he learned while he was boss at PETA. Ross Harvey has made a career out of AR, multimillionaire Zac Goldsmith uses AR to hide the fact that he has more than his fair share of the earth’s resources, and dear old Fiennes is using AR to try to keep his career going.

      Trophy hunting is about hunting. It is not “fun” in the pejorative sense it is used here. For professional hunters, it is no more “fun” than going to Church is “fun” or falling in love is “fun”. Non-hunters are not expected to understand, a fact that the AR industry uses to extract $600 million a year from the well-meaning public – cash that is used to fund the “research” behind ever-more misleading public statements. Money makes research and research makes advertising and advertising makes money. It is a useful and profitable merry-go-round, but little of it helps animals.

      The writer draws on similarities to rhinos and lions in Africa, saying “nobody cares”. But they do…one ranch alone in South Africa (SA) cares enough to raise 1500 rhinos, but a ban means legal ranchers (who harvest the horn without hurting the rhino) cannot sell horn, but poachers (who kill rhinos to get the horn) can. Likewise lions…there are perhaps 10,000 lions in captivity in SA alone, more than in the wild, but thanks to the AR industry, their trade is restricted too, allowing poachers free reign and an open market. The reality is that game farmers could raise as many rhinos and lions as the world needs, but nobody is prepared to pay for them.

      White bears are not evenly distributed. Some places have none, and in others they are a common, dangerous pest. In the Nunavut Province, there are repeated calls for an increase in hunting bears. There were recently two people killed by polar bears and people cannot go out at night. The number of Inuit communities overall that still hunt white bears is reducing as the hunting becomes unsustainable, but that is due to climate change and not hunting. They would love to hunt, but it is no longer possible.

      In areas where the Inuit still exercise their traditional rights to hunt white bears, the harvest is carefully worked out each year by scientists, wildlife managers and traditional Inuit leaders (who have deep knowledge and close cultural ties with the bears). These are people with great affinity for white bears and also possess far deeper knowledge and scientific data than a Portuguese tee-shirt seller, a publicity seeking photographer, a multi-millionaire eco-playboy and a professional AR campaigner posing as an economist.

      The reality is that the number of bears is worked out scientifically and ear tags are issued pro rata to the Inuit communities that have the right to hunt. Every bear harvested has to have an ear tag and there are severe penalties for possessing a dead bear without a tag. The Inuit hunter with a tag has the right to sell the bear skin as part of his annual income. He may also elect to sell the shot to a trophy hunter. The law is very clear – a trophy hunter has to be accompanied by an Inuit guide and apart from the trophy, the rest of the bear must go to the tag community by law. So, nothing very much changes except that the trophy hunter can take the shot. He could buy the skin off the Inuit hunter anyway. In either case, the bear would be shot for food. Banning trophy hunting would not save a single bear.

      AR campaigners love to play the genetics card…that Trophy hunters only take the “best” bears, so skew the genetics of the population. It’s more fake news. Apart from the fact that most adult male bears will have already passed on their genes, most hunters will be happy to take any trophy, and besides, the ratio of male to females is governed by regulation, so there is usually little choice.

      Banning trophy hunters will not save one single bear. Because trophy hunting is so carefully controlled, trophy hunting of white bears, like all hunting of white bears, will eventually have to stop. The white bears, however, will continue to die, killed by the climate change that is itself caused by the over-consumption of the same people who seek absolution by blaming trophy hunters. What you will see is that, as numbers decrease, their value will rise and poaching will increase as speculators buy up the skins. With no legal hunters or legal trophy hunters out there because of a ban, there will be no witnesses and poachers couldn’t care less about the law. Their time will have come.

    2. A pity the article mixes valid concerns about hunting with the proven fallacy that polar bears depend on ice. They are superb aquatic animals and have learned new ways of hunting seals e.g. by climbing onto rocks and diving off them to capture seals underwater. People should read Susan Crockford’s excellent book: “The Polar Bear Catastrophe That Never Happened”.

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