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Commercial trade in polar bears : not cultural, not subsistence, not necessary

                                                            Can’t stand being a commodity

 

 

The more I read about the recent defeat of the joint USA/Russian Federation proposal to uplist Polar Bears to CITES Appendix I (highly restricted international trade), the more convinced I become that this decision was politically motivated, was not based on any economic or cultural benefit to the native Inuit communities, was shamefully handled by the EU delegations especially Denmark, and was a blot on Canada that perhaps peddled influence over Arctic resources in return for votes. 

 My English teachers would be very critical of my use of the over-long sentence above. I beg extenuating circumstances that make me hot under the collar. And in order to consider the issue fully, I hope that you will extend the 2-minute attention span I am assured applies to all blog readers to about five or six minutes. 

 Let’s objectively consider some of the arguments used to defeat this proposal (a 2/3 majority was needed – 38 voted for uplisting, 42 against, and 48 abstained, including 26 EU member states as Denmark voted against – many of those who voted against used the argument that it would go against the cultural rights of the Inuits). A weak compromise proposal by the EU delegations was not accepted by the USA and the Russian Federation and was also defeated.

 The Inuit representatives at the CITES meeting lobbied that it was their cultural right to hunt polar bears as they had done so for centuries, and that the proceeds from such hunting was necessary to augment their meagre incomes associated with living in a part of the world where little alternative revenue is available. 

 

That argument needs to be looked at in some detail – actually it is two arguments. The first is that the Inuit have hunted polar bears for centuries and is part of their culture. That is true, and the polar bear plays an important part in an Inuit culture of hunting. However, such hunting used to come coupled with cultural ethics. For example, the Inuit believe that

“The greatest peril of life lies in the fact that human food consists entirely of souls. All the creatures that we have to kill and eat, all those that we have to strike down and destroy to make clothes for ourselves, have souls, like we have, souls that do not perish with the body, and which must therefore be propitiated lest they should avenge themselves on us for taking away their bodies.”

 Also,

“Because of these beliefs, the Inuit had a complicated set of hunting taboos that they needed to observe to be respectful of the animals that, by necessity, they needed to hunt … and to ensure that future hunting would be successful. Various gestures of respect and kindness to the souls of animals were considered to be encouragements to the animal to reincarnate into another body and, out of gratitude, allow itself to be killed again by the same hunter.”

Polar bears were special –

“The polar bear spirit was considered to be the most powerful, dangerous, and potentially revengeful … Bear hunts were usually accidental. If, while out seal hunting, fresh bear tracks are found, the hunter would set out with his dogs on the leash, armed only with his sealing harpoon. The chase was a strenuous one that could go on for days. When finally the hunter caught up with the bear, and the dogs had rounded it up, the fight was with the harpoon alone.”


Once the polar bear was killed, a number of rituals had to be observed –

“The Inuit believed that when a bear had been killed, its soul remained at the point of the harpoon head for four days if it was a male bear, and five days if it was a female bear. The soul of the bear was very dangerous during the days that it stayed in the weapon that killed it, and if it was offended, might become one of those evil spirits that persecutes people with illness or other distress. This time period was considered to be sufficient time for the bear’s soul to return to its family.

The hunter who has killed a bear and returns to his house must take off all of his outer clothing, including his outer mittens and kamiks, before entering the house. For a whole month, he must not eat of the meat or blubber of the bear. Since bears are always thirsty, it was thought to have a positive effect on their souls to give them drinking water once they have been brought into the house. (There is a prescribed way of doing this too.) 

Other death rituals (observed for four or five days, depending on the sex of the animal) surrounding the polar bear include taking the skin, with the skull intact, and hanging it, hair side out, by the nostrils in the snow hut. 

Inside, the skin, the bear’s bladder, spleen, tongue, and genitals are hung together with presents that are being made to the soul of the bear. For a male bear, various men’s implements such as knives, tools, harpoon heads, etc. must be hung up near the skin. If the bear was female, similar women’s implements (cooking utensils, an ulu, etc.) are hung up. The bear is given human tools because it was believed that bears could sometimes change themselves into humans. These gifts are similar to the possessions left with the dead because it was believed that like humans, male bears need their hunting weapons, and female bears need their domestic tools.

As long as the death taboo for the soul of the bear is being observed no man’s or woman’s work may be done, including gathering fuel or sewing new clothing (only the most necessary of repairs to clothing is allowed.) As soon as the taboo is over, children must throw the gifts to the bear’s soul on the floor and afterwards compete in picking them up again. The one who can collect the gifts most quickly will be a skilled bear hunter. 

It was thought that the spirits of humans and polar bears were interchangeable... possibly because bears have many “human” traits. They can stand up and walk on their hind legs. It walks on the soles of its feet the way humans do (unlike most other animals), and leaves full footprints when it walks. It can use its forepaws like hands to carry food to its mouth. It can sit and lean against something as if it is resting and thinking. 

The polar bear eats many of the same foods that humans do. The Inuit respect the bears’ hunting skills, and some stories state that their ancestors learned how to hunt seals by watching polar bears. They respect the bears’ strength, patience, inquisitiveness, speed, and the maternal devotion to their cubs. The Inuit also respect the intelligence of polar bears. Some Inuit believe that polar bears have an intelligence matching or exceeding that of humans.

The fact that may garner the most respect is that a skinned bear carcass has an eerie similarity to the human carcass. Many Inuit stories have polar bears that become humans by removing their fur coats, and then become bears again by putting their coats back on, or are human in their houses, but bears outside of them.”

 

I have quoted the above at length from an insightful article written here as I believe it is important to understand the actual role polar bears played in Inuit culture. All of that has pretty much gone out the window, and polar bears are now hunted as a commodity. So where stands the argument that polar bears should be commercially hunted as part of Inuit culture and therefore an “inalienable” right? It is in fact cultural anathema to hunt bears for skins and trophies.

 

This is what Terry Audla, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and present to lobby at the CITES convention had to say about polar bear hunting  :  

"It is very important, it is our livelihood. 

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.

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."

 

But is it really so important to local economies? Let’s look at three pertinent lines of evidence, a very detailed report written by George Wenzel, a survey done by the provincial government of Nunavut in Canada, and a comprehensive report written by the Humane Society International and the International Foundation for Animal Welfare. 

 

Before we go there, let’s be clear about something. If the CITES delegates had voted for an uplisting of polar bears to CITES Appendix I, this would in no way have interfered with ANY rights of indigenous people to maintain their “cultural” rights to hunt polar bears. CITES only controls (poorly) international trade in endangered species based the impact that such trade will have on conservation status. The USA and Russian Federation proposal to uplist the bears was only based on commercial trade, not cultural rights. 

 

So how did the commercial trade evolve among the Inuit? Trade involves polar bear pelts and hunting trophies. Commercial sport hunting of polar bears has an interesting history. According to George Wenzel, the first sport hunt occurred in 1969, when an Army officer decided to shoot a bear near to where he was stationed. During the ten years 1970-1979 sport hunting accounted for 0.8% of the quota of 440 bears assigned to Inuits by the Canadian government. By 1990-2000, this had risen to 14.7%. Why? In 1983, the international market for Canadian seal skins collapsed, in part due to an import ban imposed by the European Union. At about the same time, narwhal hunting was placed on a moratorium. To make recompense, the Northwest Territories provincial government, through their Department of Economic Development and Tourism decided to promote polar bear sport hunting. The Department provided not only start-up funding for sport hunt development but facilitated contacts with “big game” hunting wholesalers.  

 

The Canadian government had insisted, as part of their agreement in 1981 to join the International Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears, that they had the right to assign part of the annual polar bear quota for-profit to sport hunters via the Inuit communities. Hunting by local people was allowed by using traditional methods. Are bears therefore hunted with harpoons and dog sleds by the Inuit? Not on your life – these days it is with high powered rifles and snowmobiles. Sport hunters in contrast are given a more “cultural” experience and often get dragged around on sleds. Not that it handicaps them – in four polar bear population areas the success rate was 94% as reported by George Wenzel. 

 

So how commercially important to the Inuit is polar bear hunting? Is it really, as claimed by Mr Audla, an important part of their livelihood? The HSI/IFAW report has this to say:

“The economic benefits of polar bear hunting were, even at their peak, far too limited and far too concentrated in far too few hands to amount to anything approximating a solution to the broader socio-economic troubles faced by the Inuit…”

IFAW and HSI also said that barely half of the proceeds from bear sport hunting end up with the Inuit communities. And that out of 28 Inuit communities surveyed, polar bear sport hunting amounted to an average of 0.8% of the annual income of those communities. IFAW and HSI concluded that instead of any economic difference to Inuit communities via sport hunting, only several dozen individuals at most profited from commercial utilization of the bears. Also, many Inuit communities themselves rejected commercial hunting of polar bears – the very issue presented to CITES.

 

It would seem that provincial government surveys among the Inuit agree. Among Inuit “harvesters”, 44% indicated that issues like housing, education and employment were most important to their future. Only 6% of those Inuit people with an arguably vested interest in continuing polar bear hunting put that activity at the top of their list of overall priorities. What this says to me is that the Canadian federal government has got their support for international trade in polar bears badly wrong and should instead build schools, houses and clinics. They should certainly not have invested money in promoting polar bear trophy hunting as a means of employment…   

 

So where did it all go wrong at CITES? Well, there are many scenarios, so I’ll just add mine. 

•I believe delegations were wrongly swayed into opposition to uplist polar bears by Greenpeace, WWF and the CITES Secretariat who all made their negative opinions well known before the vote. 

•I believe delegations bought into the cultural rights argument of the Inuits to hunt polar bears and did not comprehend that this was not threatened by a cessation of commercial utilization. 

•I believe CITES Parties’ arms were twisted by Canada to consider a negative vote in return for rights to Arctic mineral and oil resources. It is interesting that such resources have become increasingly more commercially exploitable by one of the same factors threatening polar bears – global warming that is causing significant reductions in Arctic ice cover.

•I believe that the issue of commercial utilization of the bears was completely misunderstood in terms of it making any contribution to the financial wellbeing of Inuit communities. 

 

In short, the decision not to give declining polar bear populations additional protection from a cessation of international trade in bear products was a typical CITES snafu. There is some optimism though; this report points out that support for the continued use of polar bears as trade commodities is losing support among former proponents. Let’s hope that the issue is treated with more rational thinking at the next CITES Conference of Parties?

 

 

Picture credit: http://nicoleandtim.blogspot.co.uk/2009_07_01_archive.html

 

 

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Posted by Pieter Kat at 17:10

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