10/30/2014 04:12 EDT | Updated 12/30/2014 05:59 EST

Polar Bear Ban-Wagon Targets Inuit Livelihoods

Most people have only ever seen a polar bear at a zoo or aquarium. Maybe you know someone who has caught a fleeting glimpse while on an Arctic cruise or paid large sums of money to ride a tundra buggy outside Churchill, Manitoba.

The residents of many Arctic communities need only look outside their front doors. This year, residents of Arviat, Nunavut are being forced to bring Halloween indoors -- there's little need to fear ghosts and zombies when a very real threat lurks in every shadow.

Inuit live among polar bears. We inhabit the same land, ice and water. We share the same primary diet - ringed seals, those plump balls of fat prized for their high iron content. It's not an exaggeration to say that Inuit know the polar bear as well as we know ourselves.

So it baffles me when well-meaning people who have never seen a polar bear outside a zoo or cruise ship or glass-walled buggy seek to impose rules to govern how Inuit interact with bears, to determine how we should engage in a cycle of life that has allowed both Inuit and polar bears to survive for thousands of years.


It wasn't so long ago that such attitudes directed every aspect of our way of life. Today we call it colonialism. Over the course of several decades, we have fought for our right to have a voice in discussions that affect our lives. We are permanent participants in the Arctic Council and helped draft the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The theme of political empowerment is particularly important when it comes to climate change, because Inuit feel the overarching influence of a warming planet in almost every aspect of our lives. We feel it when hunters become stranded due to unpredictable ice conditions. We feel it in the melting permafrost that compromises the foundations of our homes.

And yet, we are told by well-funded organizations and foreign governments that in the face of these impacts we must fundamentally change our way of life -- what we wear, what we eat, how we feed our families, how we choose to make a living in the modern world. They assert that our activities should be changed because they may cause undue stress to our species and our environment, instead of examining whose way of life truly needs to be adjusted.

In news stories, we are often portrayed as a simple people who don't understand the science of conservation. In reality, we are the original conservationists, we are the true scientists. We work with governments and researchers to jointly manage two-thirds of the world's polar bear population. It is deeply troubling when our knowledge and experience is minimized or marginalized in international policy-making.

That's what happened in in March 2013 as the parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) sought to limit the sustainable use of polar bear against all scientific evidence and expert advice to the contrary. We fought this misdirected concern and won.

And now we face it again. The parties to the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS), an environmental treaty under the United Nations Environment Programme, are being called on next week in Quito, Ecuador, to make decisions that affect our lives without our cooperation or consent. Some have suggested that the way is being paved for an eventual ban on hunting.

Now, when most people think of polar bears, they see a symbol of Arctic majesty, of everything that stands to be destroyed in the face of a rapidly changing climate. Inuit see an intrinsic part of our heritage and homeland; we see survival in iron-rich food, pants that can withstand any blizzard and a modest income to help buy flour and fuel.

There are groups that would seek to stop hunters from earning a living from a limited, legal and highly regulated trade, on the basis of climate change predictions extrapolated over the next 50 to 100 years. That's not science. That's using climate change as a weapon to further disadvantage already disadvantaged communities.

Organizations with an incomplete grasp of the data will say that there has been a sudden and significant spike in the trade of polar bear pelts. It's true that in recent years there has been an increase in the number of biological samples from tranquilized bears crossing international boundaries. That's good science. In reality, no more than 600 animals are harvested each year out of a global population of 20,000. Only a small fraction ever enters the trade market. There has been little change in the overall volume of trade in the past 25 years.

Scientists recognize that there is a positive correlation between regulated hunting and conservation. Inuit know that no one stands to lose more from a reduction in polar bear numbers than we do. We have survived for thousands of years together. We will survive for thousands more.

We value our participation in international fora such as CITES. We work closely with TRAFFIC, an international wildlife trade monitoring program, among other groups, on the conservation of many Arctic species. We'll be in Quito next week trying to get our message out to member states. But the polar bear ban-wagon has started rolling and it's heading right for us. That's not international cooperation. That's colonialism. And it should be a thing of the past.