Inuit, polar bears casualties in the public war of words

Polar bears and Inuit people are collateral damage casualties in the public war of words on climate change and wildlife conservation, according to researchers from Canada and Britain.

University of Exeter geographer Martina Tyrrell and Doug Clark from the U of S School of Environment and Sustainability examined the fallout from a media blitz in the run-up to the March 2013 campaign to severely limit or prohibit trade in polar bears under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

The researchers found campaigns by animal welfare organizations, often backed by prominent celebrities, targeted polar bear hunting while virtually ignoring the loss of sea ice due to habitat change. This, they argue, is the true threat to the iconic bears.

“By obscuring the root causes of the threats to polar bears, the likelihood of truly rational, feasible and justifiable conservation actions for a warming Arctic may be receding just as fast as the region’s sea ice,” said Tyrrell, who has lived and conducted extensive community-based research over the last decade in Nunavut and northern Quebec.

Tyrrell and Clark’s article examines data used by animal welfare organizations in an attempt to sway public opinion regarding polar bear hunting.

By analyzing news coverage on the subject, the researchers found that climate change-induced habitat loss was de-emphasized. Tales of polar bears’ impending extinction abounded. Hunting was demonized as a purely commercial enterprise, rather than a regulated, sustainable activity.

“The data were manipulated to grossly conflate the international trade in bears,” said Clark, an expert on polar bear-human interaction and the U of S Centennial Chair in Human Dimensions of Environment and Sustainability. “They also presented a well-managed Inuit subsistence hunt as a for-profit enterprise.”

Clark explained that indigenous rights guaranteed in land claims allow Inuit to hunt polar bears. Under their management, the hunt also injects much-needed income into Inuit communities in Canada’s North.

While delegates to CITES voted down the U.S.-Russian-backed proposal to ban polar bear trade, the researchers expect the issue to come up again. When it does, they advise a less inflammatory and more even-handed approach.

“Parties on all sides are likely to have the best interests of polar bear populations at heart, but unfortunately only paying attention to one side of the issue places their future in greater jeopardy,” Tyrrell said.

Tyrrell and Clark’s findings appear in the journal Global Environmental Change.

 

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