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The Delicate Balance Between Conservation And Culture Preservation

/ Post by Erica Wills of Polar Bears International

A recent proposal by the U.S. to ban the trade of polar bear parts was defeated in a vote on March 6th at an international meeting in Thailand. The trade of polar bear parts — including pelts, teeth, and paws — is currently regulated; the proposal would have made the trade completely illegal. Approximately 600 bears are killed each year primarily by Inuit hunters, who depend upon the trade as a critical source of income.

This is an excellent example of the delicate balance between conservation and culture preservation. With polar bears so threatened by climate change, the idea of killing them for trade is unthinkable to many people around the world. However, for many Inuits, it is a critical source of income that they rely upon to survive. As reported by the BBC, Terry Audla, current president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (Canada’s National Inuit Organization), says that “less than 1% of the polar bear population” is traded, and an increase in the price of pelts — an average of $4,850 per pelt — is not leading to an increase in hunting.

“It is very important, it is our livelihood,” says Audla. “We don’t have cows or pigs or chickens; what we have are the polar bears, the seal, and the walrus. This is how we make our living; this is how we put food on the table…What’s traded is not in any way detrimental to the polar bear population. We harvest for subsistence, we are never driven by the market.”

I honestly have not decided where I stand on this issue. Like I said, it is a delicate balance; these hunters care just as much about the environment as we do here at explore.org and Polar Bears International, and have lived this way for hundreds of years. Does the rest of the world have the right to say they can no longer have this source of income? Do the native hunters have the right to ignore the rapid decline of the species?

I’m not sure, but I am sure that, instead of the focus on native hunting activities, there ought to be a greater focus on clean energy development and greenhouse gas reduction. Banning their trade is just a band-aid solution; polar bear numbers will continue to decline with or without passage of such a proposal. Let’s tackle the real issue at hand — fighting climate change — before getting into a culture war; in the end, it will have greater benefits and we’ll waste less time getting there.