WASHINGTON, March 6 (By Maria Young for RIA Novosti) - Despite the icy relationship between the United States and Russia, which have squabbled recently over everything from Syrian aid to orphan adoptions, the two countries have formed an unlikely alliance that is leading a global fight this week to save polar bears.
“Russia has really stepped out and become a leader with the US in recognizing that polar bears need additional protections,” said Kitty Block, vice president for Humane Society International, which promotes conservation and animal protection efforts, in an interview with RIA Novosti.
“We are at a critical point for these animals. We can’t stop global warming tomorrow but we can stop the senseless, commercial killing of these animals tomorrow,” she said.
At issue is a US proposal that would prohibit countries from exporting polar bear parts and products like bear skin rugs, fangs and paws. It is scheduled to be voted on Thursday by the 178 member nations at the Convention on the Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) meeting this week in Thailand.
Canada, which has the world’s largest polar bear population, is the only county that allows international commercial trade of polar bears.
“It is tied to indigenous livelihoods, and unfortunately skins are selling at high rates upwards of $4,000 or more for polar bear rugs,” said Jeffrey Flocken, North American regional director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), speaking to RIA Novosti from the CITES meeting in Bangkok.
A recent, sharp increase in price, Flocken said, is “likely linked to scarcity. When an animal gets close to extinction their parts will go up in value, and there’s a scramble, it provides a sad incentive to kill more.”
Canada exports the parts from an estimated 300 bears per year, which may not sound like much, said Block, except that “we’re talking just 20-25,000 left.”
The legal Canadian trade has made it difficult for Russia to stop poachers who kill the bears in Russia and then sell their parts using phony Canadian certificates, said Flocken.
“They suspect at least a couple hundred are killed every year, and then are able to enter into commercial trade disguised as Canadian polar bears. They can be listed on Russian internet websites and no one would be the wiser,” he said.
The United States proposed prohibiting polar bear exports in 2010, but Russia voted against it back then.
Animal protection groups say several things have changed in the last three years further endangering the polar bear: their population has declined, additional bear hunting, an increase in the price of skins and other polar bear parts, and a record loss of arctic ice that polar bears need for seal hunting.
And Russian President Vladimir Putin – who has often spoken about his fondness for wildlife and has been photographed with endangered animals, including a polar bear – was reelected to office.
“Vladimir Putin Hugs a Polar Bear,” reported Foreign Policy in 2010.
“Vladimir Putin Hearts Polar Bears,” said a Treehugger blogpost.
“Putin has been a big fan of wildlife, and has said his country is committed to conserving wildlife,” said Flocken.
The two countries make “unusual bedmates,” he said, adding, “Russia has been a real champion for polar bears in recent years. Here in Bangkok it’s been an incredible collaborative effort. Russia has been outspoken vocally, talking to delegates, explaining their concerns, they’ve been amazing.”
Some countries at the convention in Thailand are skeptical of the science that points to declining polar bear populations. Others are more focused on trade. And politics comes into play. All of which makes the US-Russian partnership that much more critical.
The Thursday vote, said animal protection advocates, is far from a sure thing.
“I expect it will be a fiery debate,” said Flocken.
If the proposal to ban commercial trade of polar bears is voted down on Thursday, it will not come up for another vote until 2016.