Ottawa wants Nunavut to improve polar bear pelt tracking
Each legal pelt would be identified by unique microchip
Ahead of the CITES summit in South Africa this September — where the United States has failed three times in past meetings to up-list polar bears to a higher protected status — Environment and Climate Change Canada says it’s important to demonstrate that Canada can control its wildlife trade to prevent any future up-listing attempts.
That’s according to Sheldon Jordan, the director general of the department’s wildlife enforcement branch, who met with Government of Nunavut officials in Iqaluit Aug. 16.
“We’re not facing another situation where we have an up-listing threat going on, nonetheless… there’s still a lot of interest in polar bears and they’re watching us,” he told Nunatsiaq News.
The acronym “CITES,” is short for Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, an international agreement, and the organization that sets rules to protect wildlife and plants around the world.
Jordan unveiled new tracking protocols for polar bear pelts in Nunavut, developed by Environment Canada and the Government of Nunavut, which were implemented as a pilot project earlier this year.
The goal: to show the international community that Canada is in control of its wildlife trade, Jordan said.
Wildlife officers have installed identification microchips into bear pelts when they’ve harvested to guarantee that only legal pelts go to auction, in an effort to curb poaching and illegal trafficking.
“Sometimes the paper trail doesn’t tell the same story as the pelt,” said Jordan, who added he wouldn’t get into the technicalities of the chipping process for security reasons.
“We’ve done a number of tests in dozens of pelts in the North. We’ve gone down to the fur auction in North Bay three months later and we’ve been able to find each one.”
Wildlife officers are also collecting DNA samples, along with isotopes from harvested bears, for databases which can track the origin of pelts by region and sub-population.
While no up-listing motion — which could ban international trade in polar bears — is scheduled for the CITES agenda this year, Jordan says increased demand, especially from East Asia, for “charismatic species” trophies will test Canada’s wildlife enforcement.
The new demand in East Asia contributes to a growing trade in illegal wildlife trafficking, estimated by Jordan to be valued between $8 billion and $23 billion US every year.
That puts wildlife trafficking in fourth place behind illegal drugs, human trafficking and counterfeiting as the largest black markets in the world.
Estimates on Canada’s contribution to that figure have never been calculated, said Jordan, who also chairs Interpol’s wildlife crime working group.
Between 2009 and 2013, the price of high-quality polar bear pelts has “quadrupled” in southern auctions.
“A good pelt at auction went from $5,000 to $20,000 [in that period],” he said.
Environment Canada’s new tracking techniques are not meant to reduce lawful harvesting by Nunavut beneficiaries — and they are only an additional means of oversight, Jordan said.
“What we need is to be able to ensure traceability, so that we know what is in the market is legally in market,” he said.
“We need to work together as regulators and beneficiaries, because they have the right to harvest.”
The animals committee of CITES ruled last September that the trade of legally-hunted polar bear trophies was not detrimental to the species’ population.
The decision followed similar defeated motions from the United States in 2010 and 2013 to up-list polar bears from CITES Appendix II to Appendix I, which is reserved for the world’s most immediately endangered species.
Member states of the Conference of Parties, or COP17, will meet in Johannesburg, South Africa from Sept. 24 to Oct. 5.
Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., which sends delegates to CITES meetings, has already thrown its support behind a motion planned by several African states to form a Rural Communities Committee.
That committee could potentially give rural and indigenous people more power over the international protection and trade in endangered species.