A limit on the hunting of polar bears by sportsmen and native Arctic people will top the agenda at an international summit in Norway tomorrow, seen as vital to the survival of the predator. Although few people outside the Arctic realise it, there is still a major legal hunt for the animals in four out of the five states that host the bears: Canada, Greenland, Alaska in the US, and Russia. In Norway, stalking is banned.
This hunt by Inuit native peoples and in Canada also by sportsmen – referred to as a "harvest" – claims as many as 700 polar bears killed every year, 3 per cent of the entire population. Adding the threat from climate change, which is eradicating the bear's natural habitat, the hunts are seen as no longer "sustainable". Studies from the US Geological Survey and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature suggest that the total population of 22,000 polar bears will fall by up to two-thirds over the next 50 years, leading the creature to the precipice of extinction.
In the age of global warming, Ursus maritimus is coming to replace the giant panda as the world's principal icon of threatened wildlife. Rising temperatures are rapidly melting the Arctic sea-ice the bears use in summer to hunt seals, meaning many cannot build large fat reserves to take them through the winter, and so starve.
The summit is in Tromsø, the Norwegian city 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle. The five countries were party to the 1973 Polar Bear Agreement, signed by all the range states to regulate hunting, which at the time was thought to be getting out of control.
The agreement in general is thought to have worked well, but on the table tomorrow will be a draft Species Action Plan for the polar bear drawn up by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), with one of its principal points being the issue of "unsustainable harvest", in other words, overhunting in the face of global warming.
The aim, said Geoff York, polar bear conservation co-ordinator for WWF's Arctic Programme, is to get the states which allow hunting to incorporate the science of climate change into their "harvest management plans". He added: "Climate change impacts are not formally taken into account with any of the polar bear populations which are harvested. We're asking the parties who manage polar bears to incorporate climate change science into their management regimes."
The implication is of course that hunting quotas will have to be reduced, a difficult issue with the Inuit who see it as part of their culture. WWF says it is not opposed to hunting in principle, as long as it is sustainable. But, said Mr York, "That is quickly changing. The situation facing polar bears is dire, because of habitat loss due to climate change. If we don't do something meaningful soon, it will be very difficult for them to survive in the long run."
The question of future hunting is sensitive, not least because there is evidence that some polar bear populations are already being exploited beyond what their numbers could support, even in the absence of the climate threat.
The Baffin Bay population, found between eastern Canada and Greenland, is thought to be one such, with a near 30 per cent decline in recent years from 2,100 to 1,500; the Chukotka population in eastern Siberia is thought to be another, where there may be illegal hunting.
The financial return from hunting is an important income for some indigenous people. Polar bears taken are used as food in some communities, and skins and skulls are either sold commercially, converted to handicrafts, or used privately.
The draft action plan also addresses industrialisation of the Arctic, toxic substances, and how to deal with the increasing number of human-polar bear interactions as bears come ashore in larger numbers as the sea-ice disappears.
Mr York said that he understood the view that hunting should be banned completely but the WWF preferred a more nuanced approach, working with local people. "If you just take away people's livelihoods, you can do short-term harm to your long-term conservation goals," he said.