Today I stood helpless alongside a dwindling blue iceberg, crumbling beneath lapping Arctic waves. On top, a female polar bear stood with her two young cubs, mewing like forlorn lambs, hungry, confused. She could swim south and eventually make land, or swim north and stand a chance of finding the retreating pack ice, but the youngsters were not strong enough. It was a sight of melancholy beauty, and one that has become the iconic image of climate change; majestic ancient mariners, stranded by the onslaught of human-induced global warming on their icy kingdom. However, while the pack ice has melted every summer for millennia, there is a more immediate pressure on this species.
The Polar bear is known by Inuit people as Nanuq, which literally translates as ‘worthy of respect’, the ever-wandering one. They are an icon of the north, with a lonely life of starvation interspersed with occasional gluttony, in an environment that could not be more alien to our own. Yet respect and awe has not prevented as many as 300,000 polar bears being killed from the beginning of commercial hunting in the 1700s, through to the 1973 when the ‘Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears’ was put in place. This represents an average of around 1100 animals per year, and is responsible for the critical decline of the species, bringing them to the very precipice of extinction. What is even less known, is that around the same number is STILL being hunted and killed each year, despite polar bears being officially protected.
Many of these bears are allocated ‘harvests’ for subsistence hunting, practiced by native Arctic peoples. I’ve been lucky enough to spend a good deal of time living amongst the peoples of several Arctic regions, to see something of their heritage and culture, and learnt much from their experiential records of the realities of climate change. And while I have enormous respect for their traditions and customs, I have also seen conundrums I find uncomfortable. There are around 13.1 million people living within the circumpolar north, and very few have what could truly be called traditional lives. Most live in well-insulated homes, with high-speed satellite internet, hundreds of televisions channels, and modern clothing. They fish using motorized boats with fish-finders and satellite-enabled weather forecasting, and through the cold winters rely on imported foods, from stores that are on occasion stocked with exotic fresh fruit and vegetables. And why shouldn’t they?! They are custodians of a noble and ancient culture, and still live lives with daily challenges I can barely contemplate.
Where it all starts to become uncomfortable though is when it comes to the hunting of endangered species. The Inupiat have annual quotas to hunt unicorn-horned narwhal, white beluga whales and 100 tonne bowhead whale. Though this is classified as a traditional subsistence industry, hunters don’t use hand thrown harpoons and row-boats as their ancestors did, but often use plane and helicopter spotters, then shoot whales from motor boats using explosive harpoons and automatic weapons. In the Nunavut region of Arctic Canada (where I’ve been lucky enough to do several expeditions), local people enter a lottery to gain ‘tags’ to allow them to shoot a polar bear, worth as much as $10,000. However, those tags are being auctioned off to foreign hunters. Just type in ‘polar bear hunt’ into Google, and you’ll find outfitters that can hook you up to pay a hefty fee, then go out and shoot yourself a bear. This constitutes trophy hunting, which is clearly in breach of the 1973 accord. In their paper ‘The Economics of Polar Bear Hunting in Canada’, the authors explain that there was no tradition of trophy hunting in Canada’s Arctic regions until the 1980s, when the territorial governments encouraged the construction of the industry to bring money to peoples in far-flung outposts of the nation. They report that trophy hunting has increased twentyfold there since, with indigenous peoples selling off their allocated quota of polar bear to wealthy outsiders; mostly from the US, Europe, China and Russia. The pattern seems to be the same as that found in African trophy hunting. The wealthy client will fly out to an Arctic location, be put up in comparative luxury, guided out onto the ice by knowledgeable locals, and given the chance to shoot a bear at close range, before the resultant head or rug is flown back to the tourist hunter’s home nation. While there is undeniably some money filtered back into the native communities by this kind of enterprise, inevitably the majority of the money goes to big game safari companies run from metropolitan cities. It is for example estimated that trophy hunting in Nunavut represents only 0.1% of the GDP. And as for the trophy hunters themselves; at least African big game can occasionally escape! On the tundra and pack ice there are no trees or hills to hide behind. Polar bears are so well-insulated that they cannot travel far fast or they dangerously overheat. They literally cannot run or hide! So once one has been located, it has simply no chance, it’s just a matter of time. From a ATV, skidoo or powerboat the hunter is totally safe, shooting at close range at a big target that cannot get away.
And all of this is done above board and is considered legal. In Russia where hunting is not allowed, many hundreds of bears are poached illegally; which of course happens across the Arctic. On a filming trip to the North shore of Alaska, we chose one of the two local guides to take us out looking for Polar bears. The next day we met the other – less reputable – guide out on the ice with his ‘bear hunting dog’ and a high-powered rifle. He’d not shot any Polar bears yet that day, but had made do with a brace of Arctic fox instead, which the night before had been playing round my ankles like puppy dogs. We spotted a distant wolverine strolling across the pack ice, and were informed that none had been seen in the area in at least 14 years. Minutes later two 100mph snowmobiles screamed out across the ice, their occupants toting assault rifles. That evening it was lining our inn-owner’s jacket.
In his (bombastic, but well-researched and referenced) book ‘Polar Bears on the Edge’, Morten Jorgenson argues that science and statistics are also being manipulated to justify and facilitate lucrative trophy hunting. When I was born in 1973 there were estimated to be 20,000 bears in the Arctic. 40,000 have been recorded as hunted throughout my lifetime… and yet scientists estimate there are now 26,000 bears. With good conditions, and no impact on their numbers due to human hunting, polar bear populations have been shown to be capable of a maximum 4-6% increase per year. However, current figures show we are taking far more than that. In the Chukchi Sea for example around 175 are hunted per year out of an estimated total of 800 (14.6%) In Baffin Bay, 149 out of a total 1600 (9.3%) Something in the numbers is suspicious.
So what can be done? Well upgrading Polar Bears to CITES I protection status would mean foreign hunters would not be allowed to take any part of their trophy home with them. Somehow a photo album and a home movie is not quite as strong a centerpiece as a taxidermied bear, and might put some off hunting. Language is important; politicians can’t talk of ‘harvests’; this isn’t wheat, they’re rare and precious animals. And let’s treat the recent US government decision to repeal legislation on bears (allowing hunting in national wildlife refuges of cubs, mothers and babies in maternity dens, plus shooting them from helicopters and planes) with the disgust it deserves.
While it is critical to respect and protect the cultures and traditions of this last great wilderness, we need to be allowed to talk about these issues, without being dubbed as clueless outsiders. Bears wander over the whole Arctic, and do not belong to any one region. On the other hand, if there genuinely is a surplus of polar bears, which allows for sustainable hunting, then this needs to be ascertained through peer-reviewed science, which is not undertaken by those who have vested interests. Few of us will ever see the wonder of the wild white top of the world, but that doesn’t mean it can be out of sight and out of mind. We did that with our oceans, and are now starting to reap the whirlwind. And while the IUCN may list the chief risk to polar bears as being the decline of their icy home due to climate change, hunting them for wall-mounted trophies is certainly not going to help.