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Alex Kennaugh’s Blog

Global Trade of Polar Bear Parts: Is the UK Fiddling as Rome Burns?

Alex Kennaugh

Posted January 24, 2013

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Click here to take actionOver the weekend, several UK celebrities announced they want to ban the international trade of polar bear parts. Their letter was published in The Independent, a widely read national newspaper, accompanied by an article that outlined the plight of the polar bear. All good news for those of us who are campaigning to stop commercial hunts of polar bears by changing the species protection status at the world’s next convention of international trade for endangered species in March 2013. 

But as I read the piece covering the celebrity support for a ban on polar bear trade, I abruptly stopped at an incredulous quote from one of the spokespeople for Richard Benyon. Benyon is the Environment Minister whose decision it is to support or oppose the ban. The official quote from the government office was that, given climate change's primacy as a threat to the world's polar bears, banning polar bear trade would be like "fiddling while Rome burns."

Since the UK spokespeople are so fond of metaphors, let me try one.

Not addressing the commercial trade of polar bears as the world watches their habitat literally melt away because of climate change is like refusing to do anything about rape in a refugee camp. Although there might be larger, global forces, such as drought or strife, that drive people from their homes into a refugee tent, would it be sound policy to ignore the immediate threats to those in the camp until the drought ended? Until the military coup died down?

If you buy the UK’s response to stopping commercial hunts of polar bears for profitable trade in their skins and body parts, then the answer to my questions above would be yes. Let rape ravage the camp. We need to solve the drought first. We need to remove military occupation first. While I’m certainly not saying that the larger issues are important, I am saying that it is irresponsible to stand aside during times of strife and allow others to exploit extreme conditions.

We have a silver bullet that can stop the second biggest threat to the world’s last remaining polar bears dead in its tracks. Ban trade now. Alleviate the pressure point on polar bears that could push them over the edge; then we can throw all our weight into curbing climate change.

By not supporting a ban on trade now, well, I fear that it’s actually the UK government that might be fiddling while Rome burns.

Take action now to stop global trafficking in polar bear parts!

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Dr. Chanda MeekJan 25 2013 03:09 PM

For a conservation group with a fairly good past record on indigenous rights in trade (e.g., your relationship with Cree hunters and their fight against bad forest practices), I am shocked at the bad taste shown in this post. That you would equate trade in wildlife parts to rape is irresponsible and offensive. Rape is not a thousand-year old trade practice that activists want to regulate or stop it is an attack on the dignity and health of a person or community. I expect NRDC to be more professional in its public communications.

Lee FooteJan 25 2013 03:26 PM

The zeal of rhetoric invoking extreme analogies is sensationalism and irresponsible journalism. There are reasonable and rational arguments to be made on both sides of this issue but histronics to win a point do not advance the discussion. Any serious discussion of policy effects on polar bear conservation are enhanced by inclusion of northern voices (Inuit, Inupiat and Cree among others) who can represent complimentary local and regional knowlege to contextualize the biological findings around ice conditions, bear abundance, bear fates and potential for sustainable use. If one wants to make a moralizing argument against killing bears, please be explicit about those intentions. If one wants to work collaboratively toward long term species persistence, do not rule out the possiblitiy that working with local people who have a thousands year old relationship with bears may have some value. Attempting to separate those people from their social, spiritual, economic, and sustenance relationships with bears is not a wise way to proceed.

Lee Foote, University of Alberta

Alex KennaughJan 28 2013 12:32 PM

Thank you both for your comments. I certainly did not mean to implicate native peoples directly as any “actor” in the analogy but I realize it could be read that way and apologize. NRDC works directly with First Nations in Canada on a variety of issues. For example, NRDC has worked, or is working, with Tribes and First Nations in Arizona, California, British Columbia, and Alaska, on issues such as groundwater withdrawals, landfills, mining, and oil and gas development. NRDC strongly supports the right of subsistence harvest and a strong voice for natives in environmental decision making. However, we believe that the commercial hunting of an endangered species for profit -- particularly paired with a quota system that allows for harvest levels to be set beyond scientific recommendations -- is bad policy and that polar bears clearly meet the criteria for heightened protections under international law.

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