Russia to Resume Limited Hunting of Polar Bears

polar bear
Russia plans to relax its ban on polar bear hunting.

In an effort to protect its dwindling polar bear populations, Russia is planning to partially lift its five-decade ban on hunting the bears in the northern Arctic, the New York Times reported recently. Forced southward in search of food as the region’s sea ice diminishes, polar bears are increasingly venturing into inhabited coastal areas, putting themselves at greater risk for poaching. The ban will be lifted to allow legalized subsistence hunting by villagers in Chukotka, a poor, sparsely populated region across the Bering Strait from Alaska.

The hunting ban was adopted by the Soviet Union in 1956 in response to a sharp decline in local polar bear populations. Since then, the shrinking habitat of the bears has increased the distances the animals must travel to find food, leading to more frequent incidences of human-bear conflict. “The normal life space for the polar bears is shrinking,” explained Anatoly A. Kochnev, a biologist with the Pacific Scientific Research and Fisheries Center in the Chukotka region. “They come in search of food on the shore, and the main sources of food are where people live.”

The move to partially lift the ban is considered a way to address increased animal displacement due to habitat loss as well as to combat illegal poaching, both issues critical to the bears’ conservation. In a region notorious for active bear hunting, Russian officials estimate that as many as 100 polar bears are killed illegally every year. By lifting the ban in the short term, they hope this will lessen the incentives villagers have to hunt the bears illegally for their pelts and meat, which can fetch high prices in markets. “It’s not just for the sake of killing,” said Pavel Yentynkeu, who lives in Nutepelman, a village to the east of Chukotka. “It’s for the meat. One big male would be enough for the entire village.”

Lifting the ban is also considered a way to restore local cultural values that have eroded in recent decades. In Chukchi culture, the polar bear has been a source of reverence as well as a source of food. Officials believe that restoring cultural values that were suppressed due to the 1956 ban will help revive a sense of stewardship toward the bears and reduce incidences of rampant poaching.

In 1973, the five countries that share polar bear territories—Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the United States—signed the Oslo Agreement, putting restrictions on the commercial hunting of bears. Since then, Norway and Russia have imposed complete bans on the activity, while the other three nations allow limited hunting by indigenous peoples. In the U.S. state of Alaska, the average legal harvest of the bears is around 40 per year. According to Russian officials, the limited bear hunting in Chukotka will be allowed to resume once a comprehensive census is completed and a yearly quota is set that will not threaten viable bear populations, probably by early 2008.

The move to legalize polar bear hunting in Russia comes amid growing global discussion about the fate of these charismatic creatures. As Arctic temperatures rise, melting the sea ice that is the natural feeding ground for the bears, scientists say the species could become extinct in the wild by mid-century. Yet both distinguished polar bear scientists in Russia and international conservation bodies such as the World Wildlife Fund support reinstating the limited hunting law. “We support effective management,” said Viktor Nikiforov, director of WWF regional programs in Russia. “If this hunting is a small part of this, then we accept it."

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.