CITES and the Polar Bear

By Dr Nikolas Sellheim

Dr Nikolas Sellheim


The parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) are currently meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, for the 18th Conference of the Parties (CoP). The CoP discusses far-reaching issues that aim to curb the illegal trade in endangered wildlife and to limit trade in species that are faced with serious conservation concerns. Also the polar bear (Ursus maritimus) is once again playing a role in the deliberations of CITES – albeit this time not by the parties themselves, but in the form of a side event, which aims to motivate the parties to place the polar bear under stricter protection by halting trade in polar bear products.

In this post, I look at the history of the polar bear within CITES and what some of the problems are relating to a possible suspension of trade in polar bear products.

CoP 18 Geneva

CoP18 in Geneva, August 2019

How CITES Works

Before we delve into the subject matter, let us recall how CITES works. As the name implies, the convention deals with international trade in wildlife. The way this is being achieved is through either the prohibition or the control of trade.

Around 36,000 plant and animal species are subject to CITES regulation. Those species that are listed in Appendix I of the convention cannot be traded in commercially. Those species in Appendix II can be traded in but require export and import permits. For species listed in Appendix III, countries ask other parties for support in monitoring trade.

What CITES doesn’t do is control the domestic trade or even the management of species. However, it is clear that decisions taken on the CITES level also reverberate into domestic trade and management systems.

Attempts to uplist the Polar Bear from Appendix II to Appendix I

When in 1973 CITES was adopted, polar bears were amongst the first species to be listed under Appendix II of the convention. That means that when polar bear products – primarily skins – are traded in, stringent certification measures are to ensure that the domestic management authorities have approved the hunt and ultimately the trade.

Although polar bears were amongst the first species to be listed, official reports from the CITES meetings do not mention polar bears until 2010, indicating either that there was no significant trade or that the regulatory system based on the species’ Appendix II-listing was effective. The CITES Trade Database allows for a tracking of registered polar bear products since 1975.

With the onset of the 21st century and the release of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment in 2004/05 (ACIA, 2005), it has become unmistakably clear that the Arctic ecosystem is disproportionately affected by climate change and that the polar bear loses its habitat. This realisation also influenced the discussions at CITES: at CoP15 in 2010, the United States tabled a proposal to uplist the polar bear from Appendix II to Appendix I, meaning that all international trade in polar bear products would be declared illegal.

The proposed uplisting went hand in hand with the increased domestic protection of the polar bear under the US Endangered Species Act as being ‘threatened’. Interestingly, however, the US proposal did not consider international trade, but instead habitat loss along with sports and trophy hunting in Russia as the main threats to polar bear populations. Moreover, estimates of the polar bear considered the overall population to range somewhere around 30,000 individuals, which significantly exceeds the CITES criteria of 5,000 individuals as a guideline for an Appendix I listing.

Polar bear range states Greenland, Canada and Norway opposed the proposal, supported by other states and bodies such as the European Union. The main argument was that polar bear hunting is not market-driven but the products derive from subsistence hunts based on adaptive co-management systems. In the end, the proposal was not approved with 62 parties against and 42 parties for an uplisting, while 11 parties abstained from a vote.

This was not the end of the matter, however. At the following CoP16 in 2013, the United States took another attempt to uplist the polar bear. While essentially both the proposal and the discussions surrounding polar bears mirrored those of CoP15, the US now argued that an Appendix I listing would reduce the overall pressure on the species. The EU, on the other hand, proposed several amendments to the proposal for it to pass, including tackling the effects of climate change. Again the proposal was not approved, yet the margin between those in favour and those opposing the proposal was small: 38 supported and 42 opposed an uplisting. 46 states abstained.

The Future of the Polar Bear within CITES

After the defeat of the uplisting proposal at CoP16, the United States did not pursue this matter further: neither at CoP17 in 2016 nor at the current CoP18, any agenda item deals with polar bears or polar bear listings. But this is not to say that polar bears have disappeared from the CITES discourse.

A side event organised by the international branch of the German Naturschutzbund (NABU) dealt with the issue of insufficient control of trade in polar bear skins. The underlying data was provided to the parties and observers in the form of a report entitled Sold Out. Polar Bears: Caught Between Skin Trade, Climate Change and Guns (NABU 2019), which appears to be unavailable online.

The primary research for the report was done by photographer Ole J Liodden, who has led a large-scale project on Polar Bears & Humans and published a book with the same title in 2019 (Liodden 2019). In both the report (and apparently the book), it is argued that the trade in polar bear skins from Canada is not sufficiently monitored and that associated polar bear hunts are being conducted on an unsustainable level. It is further argued that “[t]rophy hunting and hunting to supply the international trade in skins both target the largest, strongest and healthiest individuals [sic] bears” (NABU 2019, p. 14).

The message that was put across to audience of the well-attended side event was that polar bear hunts in Canada, conducted by Inuit or based on sold licenses, are driven by market demands. A call was therefore made to parties to support a listing of the polar bear on Appendix I in subsequent CoPs.

The evidence put forward in the event appeared to have left an impact on the audience. However, what was left out was the fact that Inuit polar bear hunts – either conducted by themselves or as part of trophy hunts – result in significant amounts of meat and other products that are used for consumption and sale locally and regionally. In the harsh conditions of the Arctic, employment opportunities are scarce. Therefore, a polar bear that is hunted is used to its fullest degree.

The presented argument that the sale of one polar bear skin for 78,000 USD in China only results in around 1,200 USD for the native hunter, thus warranting an abandonment of the trade, is a simplified perception at best. After all, prices for groceries in the Arctic are significantly higher than elsewhere, making any additional income an important contribution to the household economy. Moreover, the importance of this additional income is furthermore underlined by the difficulties associated with other international trade, first and foremost in seal skins.

The trade in polar bear skins is not a trade motivated by market demands for skins, but as a result of local hunts for polar bears as a multilevel resource. With an Appendix I-listing of polar bears, another source of income for Inuit would be lost, aggravating living conditions in the Arctic. Moreover, it would be difficult to align such listing with the rights of indigenous peoples.

Lastly, if brought forward again by any party at a future CoP, an Appendix I listing of polar bears appears to be contrary to any Arctic aspirations of non-Arctic actors. The EU has made this experience as a result of the adoption of the EU ban on trade in seal products, which resulted in a temporary stall of being accepted as an observer to the Arctic Council. If China, India, Singapore or South Korea – all observers to the Arctic Council – were to support an Appendix I listing of polar bears, this might affect their role in the Arctic Council.

It remains to be seen whether an Appendix I listing of polar bears resurfaces as a proposal in the future. If it does, it is imperative that the complexities of the polar bear hunts, the importance of polar bears for local communities, and the main drivers of the polar bear trade are understood by the parties. Only then can an informed decision be made.


Liodden, OJ (2019) Polar Bears & Humans. Naturfokus Forlag
NABU (2019) Sold Out. Polar Bears: Caught Between Skin Trade, Climate Change and Guns. Berlin: NABU.

Dr Nikolas Sellheim is a Fellow at Polar Research and Policy Initiative, specialising in international marine mammal law and Arctic socio-legal studies. At present, he is also a postdoctoral visiting researcher at the Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science (HELSUS) at the University of Helsinki. His current research deals with the role of local communities in international conservation law for which he analyses five multilateral environmental agreements and the normative role of ‘the local’ therein. His particular interest lies on whaling communities in the Arctic and Japan. Nikolas holds a PhD in law from the University of Lapland (2016). In his doctoral dissertation, he focused on the EU regime on trade in seal products, for which he conducted fieldwork in the Newfoundland sealing industry. Nikolas has extensively published on the seal hunt and is the author of The Seal Hunt. Cultures Economies and Legal Regimes (Brill Nijhoff, 2018). His Arctic research interests further lie on the way the Arctic is perceived and narrated, and Arctic social sciences in general. Nikolas is also co-Editor-in-Chief of Polar Record, the journal of the Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge, UK.