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Polar bears are in the midst of a hard-earned fight to win their protection. The listing of this iconic species under the Endangered Species Act in 2008 was an important first step in their protection, but now the battle rages on.
The Obama administration is deciding whether to propose that polar bears be uplisted to Appendix I under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. By moving the polar bear from Appendix II, which allows regulated international commercial trade, to Appendix I, CITES would be offering the species the highest level of protection by prohibiting international commercial trade in the species.
At the previous CITES meeting, the United States led the charge to offer greater global protection for polar bears against trade. However, U.S. efforts were defeated by countries and trophy hunting organizations that want to continue to exploit this species — despite its perilous future. Now, as the U.S. government prepares for the next CITES meeting in March 2013, it is “undecided” on its position as to whether to lead the fight for polar bears again.
With polar bears already threatened by climate change, oil exploration and pollution, the unnecessary killing of these creatures for sport and trade in their parts will only accelerate their slide into extinction. There should be no indecision about it. The U.S. already recognizes that polar bears are a threatened species and grants them protections on U.S. soil. Now, it has an opportunity to build on that lifesaving foundation and push for further protections by promoting a ban of the commercial trade in polar bear parts globally.
Polar bears are not souvenirs or decorations. They are a living, breathing species that is rapidly disappearing. Their value comes from being able to roam in their natural habitat, preserved for future generations — not as individual body parts, a mounted head or a rug.
While climate change is decidedly the greatest threat to the species, international trade poses a risk and exacerbates the problems the species already faces and will continue to face increasingly in the future. Prohibiting international trade is an important and effective conservation measure that can and should be implemented immediately, without protest.
There are thought to be 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears in existence, and that number is decreasing. Leading scientists believe that two-thirds of the world’s polar bears will be lost by midcentury. Killing a species in danger of extinction is by definition unsustainable, and we must take away the incentive to do it. Now is the time to take a stand for the polar bears, who unfortunately find themselves standing on thin ice.
Jeff Flocken is the Washington, D.C.. office director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.