The action Thursday at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora meeting in Bangkok was seen as a victory for Canada's indigenous Inuit people, who argue trade in polar bear pelts is one of their few economic resources.
Delegates rejected the proposal to change polar bears' status from a species whose trade is regulated but not banned, the BBC reported.
Of the world's estimated 25,000 polar bears around 6,000 are thought to live in the arctic regions of Canada, the only country that permits the export of polar bear parts.
Around 600 polar bears are killed there annually, mostly by native Inuit hunters.
The pelts from around 300 bears are sold for rugs, Inuit representative say, providing one of the new sources of income available to them.
The United States, with support from Russia, had proposed that polar bears be upgraded to would ban any trade in their pelts, paws or fangs.
A Humane Society International spokeswoman said the conference failed in its responsibility to protect wildlife.
"Polar bears are being driven to extinction and must be protected from other threats such as international commercial trade," Teresa Telecky said. "We are supremely disappointed that so many ... parties ignored the clear scientific evidence that justifies an uplisting of the species."
However, the president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, Canada's national Inuit organization, said he was pleased the international community had agreed the way the Inuit manage the polar bear is working.
"It is very important. It is our livelihood," Terry Audla said.
"This is how we make our living. This is how we put food on the table. And for the rest of the world to suggest that how we manage the polar bear is not right is a slap in the face -- but the decision that was made today shows we are doing the right thing," he said.
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