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Polar Bear Day

Today is the World Polar Bear Day!

This day raises awareness on the issues facing polar bears and the ways in which we can reduce our carbon footprint. Climate change is a huge threat to polar bears’ existence and it’s up to us to take action and protect their future. Polar bears are classified as marine mammals, carrying with them a thick layer of body fat and a water-repellent coat to keep them insulated against the icy cold air and water they encounter on the sea ice of the Arctic Ocean. With their territory melting away beneath them, International Polar Bear Day is an important opportunity for us to remind ourselves what is at stake here, preserving the future of these magnificent mammals.

It’s been difficult for scientists to track down the origins of the polar bear but a recent discovery in Norway may have provided the answer. A rare jawbone found on the Norwegian island of Svalbard in 2004 allowed scientists to estimate that the species first walked the planet around 150,000 years ago.

Indigenous cultures have lived in the Arctic and hunted polar bears for thousands of years, contributing towards a balanced Arctic ecosystem. That all changed in the 1700s when hunters from Europe, Russia, and North America began to rapidly cut into the polar bear population. Without any regulations, people were able to trap as many polar bears as they liked, and the species suffered because of it.

By the 1950s things were getting worse due to the increasing use of fossil fuels. The burning of coal, oil, and gas melted the sea ice, causing ocean levels to rise and changing the landscape of the polar bear’s environment. Environmental groups began to push back on the polar bear’s behalf but their protests often fell on deaf ears as governments ignored their pleas to do more to protect the Arctic and in turn polar bears.

In 1973, the U.S, Denmark, Norway, and the former USSR signed the International Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears and their Habitat. The agreement regulated commercial hunting and the U.S. government classified polar bears as endangered. The non-profit organization Polar Bears International (PBI) was formed in 1994 and they made it their mission to establish action programs to protect the endangered polar bear.

They introduced the first International Polar Bear Day in 2011 and it has been celebrated every year since.

Sadly, from all the Polar bears range countries, Canada is the only country that still allows these wonderful bears to be hunted as trophy hunting. The US have attempted to get them protected from all trade at CITES, but the WWF and Canada (in Doha CITES CoP15 in 2010) and WWF, Canada and shockingly Greenpeace, joined forces against the US Proposal to uplist the Polar bears, to make all its trade illegal, and in both CoP's the US Polar bear Proposal was not approved. Even Russia's government and Polar bear scientists threw a large side event and reception to gain support of the US Proposal, (Bangkok CITES CoP16 in 2013) - Our sister NGO CATCA Environmental and Wildlife Society (CEWS), was at the battlefront lobbying and working hard to get it approved in those two CITES CoP's -.

The United States tabled a proposal to uplist the polar bear from Appendix II to Appendix I, meaning that all international trade in polar bear products would be declared illegal.

The proposed uplisting went hand in hand with the increased domestic protection of the polar bear under the US Endangered Species Act as being ‘threatened’. Interestingly, however, the US proposal did not consider international trade, but instead habitat loss along with sports and trophy hunting in Russia as the main threats to polar bear populations. Moreover, estimates of the polar bear considered the overall population to range somewhere around 30,000 individuals, which significantly exceeds the CITES criteria of 5,000 individuals as a guideline for an Appendix I listing.

Polar bear range states Greenland, Canada and Norway opposed the proposal, supported by other states and bodies such as the European Union. The main argument was that polar bear hunting is not market driven but the products derive from subsistence hunts based on adaptive co-management systems. In the end, the proposal was not approved with 62 parties against and 42 parties for an uplisting, while 11 parties abstained from a vote.

This was not the end of the matter, however. At the following CoP16 in 2013, the United States took another attempt to uplist the polar bear. While essentially both the proposal and the discussions surrounding polar bears mirrored those of CoP15, the US now argued that an Appendix I listing would reduce the overall pressure on the species. The EU, on the other hand, proposed several amendments to the proposal for it to pass, including tackling the effects of climate change. Again the proposal was not approved, yet the margin between those in favor and those opposing the proposal was small: 38 supported and 42 opposed an uplisting. 46 states abstained.

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