U.S. and Russia Team Up in Bid to Aid Polar Bears
Climate change is depleting ice levels at a record pace around the world. This depletion of ice is causing a double threat to the polar bears because of it. First it is eliminating their natural habitat and driving them closer to areas inhabited by people which makes it easier to hunt them.
On top of that the increased industrial activity in the Arctic, including oil and gas exploration, poses additional dangers. Both scientists and wildlife conservation groups agree that the world’s polar bear population, which is estimated at 20,000 to 25,000, is in grave peril because of the reasons above.
Although relations between Russia and the U.S. are currently a little strained over other world issues, on the issue of greater protection for the polar bears under a global treaty, they are joining together in support. That treaty is being reviewed this week at a conference in Bangkok, Thailand.
According to Jeffrey Flocken, North American regional director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, “It really seems that both countries were willing to put aside their differences in order to work together to help save the polar bear."
Russia’s decision to cooperate with the United States on this treaty reverses Moscow’s opposition to a similar American proposal at the endangered species conference three years ago. However the reasons for this may be the increasing danger to polar bears since then and the return to the presidency of Russia for Vladimir V. Putin. Putin is a big supporter of the protection of wildlife and has declared 2013 to be the “Year of the Environment” in Russia.
The American-Russian proposal would grant polar bears the highest level of protection under the treaty, called the 'Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora', by banning international commercial trade in skins, furs and other items made from bears.
This is being hotly contested by Canada and Denmark, (who is representing Greenland), both who oppose such a ban. Norway, the fifth country where polar bears live, could be the tie breaker on this issue but it has not yet announced publicly how it plans to vote.
The European Union also (which controls the largest bloc of votes at the treaty conference) has suggested two alternative proposals to improve protections for polar bears. These proposals would not formally shift its status and ban commercial trade though and the United States is opposing both those alternatives.
According to Daniel M. Ashe, who is the director of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service leading the American delegation has said that he is optimistic that the American-Russian proposal will succeed. “Russia has been strongly supportive,” Mr. Ashe said by telephone from Bangkok.
Canada, which has the world’s largest polar bear population, is the only country that still permits overseas trade in bear skins and parts. Other countries have imposed export restrictions while setting their own limits on domestic hunting and sales. This is because it is an issue that requires delicate negotiations with native communities that rely on bears for food, skins and other subsistence needs.
Mr. Nikita Ovsyannikov, the deputy director of Russia’s polar bear preserve on Wrangel Island, in the Chukchi Sea northwest of Alaska, has said that even in sanctuaries, scientists were observing a general weakening in the polar bear population, including lower reproduction rates and higher mortality.
“The situation of polar bears is getting more and more similar to the story of the Great Auk, the Arctic bird that became extinct in the mid-19th century. We start thinking and start discussing what actions we have to take when it is too late,” lamented Mr. Ovsyannikov.
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