Polar bears: stars of biodiversity protection or geopolitical tool?

The population of polar bears is around 27,000 spread across in the Arctic region.
The population of polar bears is around 27,000 spread across in the Arctic region. Pixabay/CC

Since the release of footage showing a starving polar bear in the Arctic in December 2017, the animal has become the symbol of the ongoing struggle to manage climate change. However, according to French geographer and researcher Farid Benhammou, its future is also dependent on international politicking. This week, the international community marked International Polar Bear Day.


Benhammou is a researcher at Poitiers University. In 2015, he, along with Rémy Marion, wrote a book called Géopolitique de l’ours polaire - or the Geopolitics Of The Polar Bear. In it, he outlined some of the challenges facing this solitary animal today, as well as the challenges it is likely to face in the future.

The interview below has been edited for clarity.

Q: What challenges do polar bears face for the future?

There are a number of challenges that face polar bears particularly around balancing the need for its preservation against the rights of native peoples to hunt it.

The polar bear is protected in the Arctic regions of most of the countries it roams.

However, under the Washington Convention - CITES - which combats the trafficking and manages the trade of protected species, it has been placed in Annex 2. This means that there are countries where licenses have been issued allowing aboriginal peoples hunt some [listed] animals. One such country is Canada, which allows the native Inuit to hunt polar bears.

The bear hunt is subject to very strict conditions and hunts are closely monitored and controlled by Canadian and Inuit authorities.

The hunt is entirely subsistence-driven. However, this is not the main reason for the [decline] of the polar bear.

The principal cause of their decline is the disappearance of their environment, particularly the melting of the sea ice caused by global warming.

Q: Which countries are polar bears most impacted by geopolitics?

Around 2010, a number of countries put pressure on Canada to ban hunting, especially Russia and the United States.

Canada needs the Inuit if it is to continue claiming territorial sovereignty [as part of their survival plan]. In the Arctic, there are a number of issues around ownership and territorial sovereignty. One of those issues has been the tension between Canada and the United States over the Northwest Passage.The United States wanted the passage to be re-classified as international waters.

[Canada considers the Northwest Passage to be Canadian territorial waters, but the US and some European countries say the passage is an international strait.]

What is ironic is that while the United States and Russia were calling for a halt to bear hunting and the reclassificaiton of the passage, the biggest threat to the polar bear comes from pollution and global warming. Russia and the United States are two of the main culprits in this regard.

Since 2016, however, the situation has calmed down somewhat. On site and in the area around the Passage many local organisations and scientists cooperate. Russia and the United States have decided not to apply for classification of the polar bear in Annex 1, which, if it were in place, would completely prohibit hunting.

Q: Are there any other species threatened in the Arctic?

There are other species that are less emblematic than the polar bear, which are also threatened like the polar fox or the walrus.

The polar bear is a kind of animal 'star' of the biodiversity [challenge] because of its distinctive physique and the distinctive physique of polar bear cubs. They make beautiful trophies all white [and cuddly]. It is quite striking - quite a selling point.

The species is, of course, still under threat even though the forecasts are less pessimistic than they were even a few years ago. It is thought that 30 percent ot them could disappear in the coming years instead of the 50 percent previously forecast.

To sum up, the polar bear is a species that symbolises the entire environment and ecosystem of the Arctic that is slowly disappearing.

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