The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species met in Bangkok, Thursday, where delegates from 176 countries voted down a proposal put forward by the United States and Russia to elevate polar bears to protected status internationally. A total of 38 countries voted in favor of the U.S. proposal, with 42 against, and 46 abstentions.
About 25,000 polar bears exist around the world, two-thirds of them in Canada. In its report to the convention the U.S. said an average of 3,200 items made from polar bears were exported every year from Arctic countries, mainly Canada, representing about 400 to 500 polar bears.
The trade has become more valuable in recent years; two pelts sold at an auction last June in Ontario fetched a record $16,500 each, the Los Angeles Times reports.
In the United States, polar bears are protected by the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Non-subsistence hunting and commercial trade in polar bear pelts is prohibited.
The Inuit population of Canada have long defended their rights to hunt their traditional prey, and sell the leftover parts and pelts. The income from these sales, often to trophy hunters, helps the impoverished villages survive in the far north.
Canadian officials say they have carefully tailored regional hunting quotas designed to maintain healthy polar bear populations. But conservationists noted the Canadian territory of Nunavut tripled its harvest quota in 2011 and raised it again last year.
Those in favor of the ban note that hunting only adds to the threat polar bears face. The demonstrated loss of Arctic ice cover and other impacts of climate change, and the coming increase in Arctic shipping also threaten the polar bear.
“It’s an unfortunate result after an ugly process,” said Brendan Cummings of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Countries and organizations that wanted to keep the international trade in polar bear skins going for political reasons had to distort or downplay the science showing polar bears are well on their way to extinction.”