The animals vs The people

Polar bears have their day in court, and other legal dramas
  • @emilydugan

The fate of the polar bear may be decided this week. Not on the shrinking ice floes of the Arctic, or even in parliaments around the world, but in the courtroom.

On Wednesday, lawyers will meet in a Washington court to argue whether the animal can be classified as "threatened" or "endangered", determining the level of protection it is allowed.

The case is one of many around the world where the future of a species is being decided by judges. From whales in the Southern Ocean to badgers in Wales, the battle for protecting wildlife is increasingly being fought in court.

Experts say that a combination of improved animal protection laws worldwide and the increasing urgency of combating climate change is pushing up the number of such cases.

Mikael Karlsson, president of the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation, which is bringing a case over the protection of grey wolves, said: "Around the world, environmental legislation has been strengthened over time, and now we're seeing a backlash from other interests, which means more cases are coming to court."

Noah Greenwald at the Center for Biological Diversity, which has brought a large number of such cases in the US, said: "The litigation over species management began in the early Nineties, and in the last 20 years this has come to fruition."

In the past, lobbying governments to improve animal protection might have sufficed, but Mr Greenwald says this option is becoming increasingly ineffective.

"When you're lobbying the government to protect wildlife, you're often up against powerful economic interests, so litigation is a very powerful tool," he said.

Heather Sohl, species policy officer for WWF, said: "There's been a growth in environmental law, so people are taking increasing action. We have to conserve the biodiversity of the world because we rely on natural resources for our own survival. We depend on these ecosystems and need to keep them in place for future generations."

Grey wolves

When the Swedish government proposed culling 20 wolves last month, ministers could hardly have foreseen that they might end up in the European Court of Justice. But the European Commission has mounted a legal challenge against Sweden on the grounds that the animals are an endangered species. The first hunt in 45 years went ahead in January last year, when the parliament decided numbers needed to be reduced.


A mass cull to stop the spread of TB in cattle was prevented in Wales last summer after the Badgers Trust took the Welsh Assembly to court. The trust is gearing up for another legal battle as it waits for the English policy to be announced.


The Inuit say their way of life has been put under threat by a European Union law banning seal products, now used to make Omega 3 pills. They are taking their fight to court for a second time. Canada argues that such prohibition violates the EU's trade obligations. In October, the European Court of Justice dismissed Inuit claims that it would have a negative impact on their livelihoods, but Canada has vowed to fight on.


Fears that coral reef ecosystems could collapse in the next 40 years because of rising carbon dioxide levels has led conservationists to file a court case to get them protected. The National Marine Fisheries Service is being threatened with court action as conservationists campaign to protect 82 corals in the Caribbean and the Pacific. Environmentalists say the service has failed to make a decision on whether or not to protect the reefs.

Polar bears

This week a major lawsuit in a US court will decide if polar bears can be classified as "threatened" or "endangered". The risk of them being wiped out by melting ice caps led to the animals being listed as "threatened" by the US government in 2008, but the decision infuriated the oil industry. Five companies came together to file a lawsuit, appealing against Washington's ruling. This has now come up against an opposing lawsuit from environmentalists, arguing that the bears should have better protection and be classed as endangered. This would increase safeguards for the bears and make exploration for oil and gas more difficult. This is already a pressing concern as Shell wants to drill an exploratory well in northern Alaska this summer.


Turtles and 26 other endangered animals are at the centre of legal action against BP over the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year. Environmentalists say the impact is still being felt. A lawsuit has been filed by several groups, all keen to ensure the company pays up.


Japan's "scientific whaling" will be taken to an international court by Australia in June. The Japanese say their whaling is for scientific purposes and therefore legal, but environmental campaigners claim that the unused meat is sold for food; scientific research is merely a guise to make money. Opposing whaling in the Southern Ocean, Australia is taking its grievances to the International Court of Justice, recognising the country has a "significant disagreement" with Japan.

Bald eagles

In October, the desert nesting bald eagle was taken off the endangered species list for the second time in three years – by a court. Amid appeals by conservationists, a judge said the decision, in a case brought by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, will stand until a legal challenge is mounted. Environmentalists are preparing their lawsuit, claiming the ruling uses "flawed logic" and "overrules scientists".