Bag a polar bear for $35,000: the new threat to the species

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The latest challenge for fans of extreme hunting is an expedition to the Arctic Circle. Jerome Taylor reports

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Boyd Warner treasures the memory of killing his first polar bear. It was 2003. For days he had stalked his prey on the frozen wastelands north of Pond Inlet, one of Canada's most isolated Inuit communities deep inside the Arctic Circle. His dog team picked up the scent of an eight-foot adult male and they hurtled over the ice: the hunt was on.

"It was one of those beautiful Arctic days," recalled Mr Warner. "We'd had about 14 hours of sunlight and were completely surrounded by nature. The moment of death comes quickly for the bear. You might track one for days through the ice but a single shot to the heart kills it instantly."

For wealthy modern-day trophy hunters, bagging a polar bear is the ultimate kill. Fourteen days in harsh conditions, requiring dog-sleds, Inuit guides and a heated tent camp, does not come cheap: the minimum bill comes to $35,000 (£24,000).

Mr Warner is the man who helps them do it. Earlier this week, the 45-year-old Canadian, whose company Adventure Northwest is based in Yellowknife, sent this season's first group of hunters north to Pond Inlet, where they will track and kill up to six bears. "This is probably the toughest hunt you can ever do," he said. "The weather conditions are appalling and it takes a huge amount of patience. You're living in the Arctic where it can drop to -50C at night and everything is done with sled dogs. It's incredibly gruelling.

"This year we have a lot of Mexicans and Americans but you get hunters from Europe, mainly Norwegians and Poles. They are just genuine, ordinary folk with a lot of cash. They respect the animals enormously."

There are few animals more symbolic of the perils of climate change than the polar bear, which faces destruction as the Arctic sea ice melts away – the bears starve or drown because the distances they have to swim to find prey become too vast. Yet every year scores of wealthy hunters from around the world pay tens of thousands of dollars to travel into the frozen Arctic and bag themselves a coveted polar bear hide.

Canada, home to about 60 per cent of the world's 22,000 polar bears, is the only one of the five polar bear "range states" which allows outsiders to hunt them as a trophy sport. America, Greenland and Russia only allow their native Arctic populations to kill a quota each year whilst Norway has outlawed stalking altogether.

"I don't enjoy killing animals but I enjoy the hunt," said Mr Warner. "People find that difficult to understand but for me there is no paradox."

The kill quotas – known as "tags" – are also allotted for Canada's Inuit communities, many of whom choose to legally sell them onto outsiders willing to part with enough cash.

"Those 20 bears are going to get killed one way or another because the Inuits depend on them for food during the winter," Mr Warner insisted. "So it shouldn't really matter whether it is the indigenous population that is shooting them or outsiders."

When the animal is killed, usually with a shot to the heart just behind the bear's fore leg, the Inuits use everything apart from the liver, which contains toxic levels of vitamin A and has to be buried.

Most hunters are then allowed to take their polar bear hides back to their own country, so long as they have the completed paperwork. Last year the US banned the importation of polar bear hides but most countries, including Britain, place no restrictions on the skins.

Mr Warner reports that his business has been hit by the US restrictions. "The American ban on importing polar bear skins has definitely hit the Inuit communities hard," he said. "You're not going to part with thousands of dollars if you can't bring your trophy back."

The latest US-led scientific surveys suggest that up to two-thirds of all polar bears could be lost by 2050 – bringing the sustainability of hunting into question. Tackling the issue has been unpalatable for host governments because of the hunts' traditional role and ongoing economic importance in Inuit life. As the mercury rises, the fates of ursus maritimus, Mr Warner and the Inuit hunters will become ever more precariously intertwined.

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