Countries around the world agree that polar bears are in trouble: They’re considered threatened in the United States, of special concern in Canada, and vulnerable internationally. Yet in much of their icy habitat, it’s perfectly legal to pick up a gun and shoot one.
In Canada, home to nearly two-thirds of the world’s estimated 25,000 remaining polar bears, the animals are hunted both for their meat and for their thick, furry white pelts. The Canadian government and conservation groups alike have long held that polar bear hunting in Canada is sustainable. But in his new book, Polar Bears and Humans, Ole Liodden, a Norwegian polar bear researcher, argues that it’s not.
For decades, Canada has been the main hunting ground for polar bears. The Canadian government sometimes makes recommendations on how to hunt sustainably—for example, harvesting two males for every female—but Canada’s provincial and territorial governments establish their own annual hunting quotas.
Samuel Iverson, head of the polar bear management unit for the Canadian Wildlife Service, says scientists recommend targeting males disproportionately because they may mate with more than one female in a year, whereas females mate only once every two years. “If you want to make sure that you’re not overharvesting, you’d really pay attention to the number of females you’re removing,” he says.
Liodden believes that rationale is flawed because the polar bears in highest demand for the commercial pelt trade are the largest males—the strongest and healthiest animals. By removing those bears from the population, he says, hunters perpetuate what he calls “reverse selection”—the idea that instead of survival of the fittest, it’s survival of the weakest.
Polar bears use sea ice platforms to hunt for seals when they surface for air. But, Liodden says, as our warming planet melts more sea ice, perpetuation of the species may rest with the strongest bears—those that can swim farther, hunt better, or go longer without food.
Counting polar bears and assessing how well they’re doing is expensive and difficult. Of the 19 subpopulations that make up the worldwide estimate of 25,000 by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the global authority on the conservation status of wild animals and plants, data on the number of bears, their health, or both are lacking for at least 10 of those populations. So it’s not surprising that experts disagree on the greatest threats facing polar bears.
Eric Regehr, a member of the IUCN’s polar bear specialist group, says “unequivocally” that climate change is their greatest threat. Iverson is more measured, saying that climate change could become a problem for polar bears in the future but that at present “the overall polar bear population in Canada is healthy.”
According to Iverson, evidence amassed over three decades shows that Canada’s hunting quota “is not endangering polar bears.” And because populations are assessed and quotas are adjusted every few years, future quotas will account for the effects of climate change. “It’s something that we have mechanisms in place to course correct, if in a given subpopulation there’s a concern.”
Drikus Gissing, director of wildlife management for Nunavut, Canada’s northernmost territory, agrees. He says that each subpopulation is evaluated by the relevant provincial or territorial government every five to 15 years and that hunt quotas are adjusted accordingly based on the best, most current research. “We can’t manage based on what might happen 50 years from now … If sea ice completely disappears in certain areas, the bears will disappear with it … We can’t change the ecosystem to accommodate those animals.”
“Like a Ferrari in your garage”
According to Liodden, between 1963 and 2016, an average of 991 bears were hunted worldwide every year, totaling about 53,500 bears. He calls that number “crazy high,” given how many polar bears are believed to be left and how slow they are to reproduce.
As the largest supplier of polar bear skins, Canada exports hundreds each year, which Liodden says often carpet customers’ floors or are mounted on the wall as the “ultimate status symbol … It’s like to have a Ferrari car in your garage … It’s an item you can have that not many other people have.”
“It’s a status symbol, there’s no doubt about it,” says Calvin Kania, owner of FurCanada, a Canada-based company that sells polar bear rugs and taxidermied bears. “It’s no different than wearing a diamond or wearing a sable fur coat.” Customers pay thousands of dollars for a single pelt. Kania says his prices for a polar bear rug peaked between 2013 and 2015 at about $20,000 but that prices have since dropped to between $12,000 and $15,000 as demand has declined.
For decades, Japan had a big appetite for polar bear skins, but demand there fell during the mid-2000s after the Japanese economy crashed. In 2008, imports into the United States—formerly another major market for skins—became illegal after polar bears were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
Now it’s China: Between 2006 and 2010, the country imported 467 polar bear skins, but between 2011 and 2015, the number more than doubled, to 1,175, accounting for about 70 percent of Canada’s exports, according to Liodden.
In Liodden’s view, subsistence hunting—for meat and clothing—can be managed sustainably, but commercial trade is too risky and should be banned. “The market will always push for highest price and more killing,” he says.
Allowing commercial trade creates a system “inherently susceptible to corruption,” says Zak Smith, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an international environmental advocacy group. Trading polar bear parts could influence the quota-setting process, he says, allowing the potential for profit to affect how many animals can be hunted in a given year. “This is a species that is threatened with extinction,” he adds. “Endangered species should not be the subject of profit-driven commercial trade.”
Lily Peacock, a former polar bear research and management biologist for Nunavut, says the indigenous Inuit in the upper reaches of Canada have hunted and eaten polar bears for thousands of years. Hunting should be regulated and studied, she says, but focusing on hunting—or even overhunting—ignores “the huge elephant in the room … In general, climate change is such a bigger issue than harvest, that it’s like, why take away part of someone’s culture?”
Jim Goudie is an Inuit. He’s also the deputy minister of land and natural resources for Nunatsiavut, a self-governing Inuit region. He says that when polar bears are in trouble, his people will be the first to sound the alarm—not researchers from far-off universities. “For me, if there’s no polar bears tomorrow, it’s part of my culture that just disappeared … We will be the ones to tell the world if we think there’s an issue with polar bear. We have the most to lose.”
“Just too many bears”
Nunavut’s Drikus Gissing says the situation for polar bears isn’t as dire as some make it out to be. With about 13,000 bears, he says, Nunavut, where more than 80 percent of Canada’s polar bear hunting takes place, now has more bears than ever before.
Bears and people sometimes cross paths disastrously: Last year two Nunavut men were mauled to death. One was unarmed. “We’re at a stage now where polar bears are basically overabundant,” Gissing says. “There are just too many bears.”
Indeed, shootings of so-called “problem bears” (animals killed in defense of life and property) have spiked during the past two decades, Liodden notes, up from 13 killings in 1999 to 91 in 2012—a 600 percent increase.
Nikita Ovsyanikov, a Russian behavioral ecologist and member of the IUCN’s polar bear specialist group, says that more sightings of bears doesn’t necessarily mean there are more bears but that the animals are losing sea ice and spending more time on land. “When we see many polar bears around us or close to us, close to our settlements and infrastructures in the Arctic, it is not an indication that polar bear numbers are increasing,” he says. “It is an indication that they’re in trouble.”
The IUCN’s Regehr says the claim that bears are encroaching more on humans because of sea ice losses may have validity, but it’s also a convenient explanation in the absence of precise numbers for the various bear populations. “It’s hard to know how many gophers are in your backyard,” he says. Similarly, “to count polar bears in an area of sea ice the size of Texas, I mean, that’s incredibly difficult and expensive.”
Looking to Svalbard
Liodden considers Svalbard, an archipelago between Norway and the North Pole, to be a model for the future. That’s because, despite its location on the Barents Sea, which has lost more than 50 percent of its ice since the 1980s, Svalbard’s polar bears are stable. Their numbers were estimated at 241 in 2004 and at 264 in 2015. The difference between Svalbard and other polar bear habitats, he says, is that hunting has been banned there since 1973.
Smith, the environmental lawyer, says hunting of polar bears in Canada “wouldn’t be upsetting if you didn’t know what was on the horizon … We may be removing animals that are the key to their own adaptability. We’re inserting ourselves into the evolutionary process by actually taking some animals out of the gene pool.”
Péter Molnár, a University of Toronto Scarborough researcher who forecasts the effects of climate change on polar bears, agrees that Liodden’s reverse selection theory is plausible. In western Hudson Bay, he says, there’s “clear evidence” that the bears are getting thinner as sea ice disappears. Polar bears rely on fat and protein reserves because they fast for months at a time, so when it comes to size, “the fatter your bear is, the better.” And, Liodden says, fatter, bigger bears are the ones hunters seek.
But according to Regehr, just because a polar bear is bigger or younger, it doesn’t mean it’s more fit. Studies have indeed shown that polar bears are getting smaller because of sea ice loss, but, he posits, it’s possible that smaller bears that don’t need to eat as much to survive may actually be better off.
For Molnár, though, the question is: “Can polar bears adapt to any of this?”
Recent estimates by U.S. Geological Survey scientists predict that because of melting sea ice, up to two-thirds of all polar bears will be lost by 2050. Even if polar bears are still around at the end of the century, Molnár says, that’s four or five generations at most, which is not enough time to evolve, whether it’s in response to climate change, hunting, or other threats.
“It doesn’t look like they’re going to be around for very much longer in most populations,” he says. “We have very strong evidence that these declines will just get worse as the climate changes. Unless we’re turning things around on that front, it’s a pretty grim and predetermined outcome.”
Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at nationalgeographic.org. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to email@example.com.