Bangkok, March 7, 2013 — After bitter debate, a proposal by the U.S. at the 178-nation meeting of the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to stop hunting and commercial exploitation of polar bears was rebuffed by Canada.

(Photo: Ho/Reuters)

Delegates were essentially asked the question: is the future threat to polar bears from the rapid melting of sea ice by global warming so great that the additional pressure of hunting the bears be outlawed?

The US, allied with Russia, argued yes. They said the science showed two-thirds of the 20,000-25,000 polar bears will disappear by 2050. In fact, since that work was done, it has got even worse as 2012 saw record low Arctic ice.

Canada – home to two-thirds of the world’s polar bears and the only nation allowing exports – argued there is not enough scientific evidence to show they are in danger of population collapse. Canadian representatives said the country already has strict rules to ensure hunting is sustainable. The Canadian delegation leader dismissed the U.S. proposal as “based more on emotion than science.”

Final count: 38 countries voted for the bears, 42 against, 46 abstained.

About 600 polar bears are killed each year in Canada, some in traditional hunts by Inuit people and some as trophies for foreign hunters. Half the bears are then exported as skins or other body parts.

The debate split conservation groups. The World Wildlife Federation (WWF) supported Canada, saying that making political decisions without enough scientific evidence would severely undermined the CITES system, which controls all wildlife trade. Others including International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) said the science was clear that two-thirds of the existing bears would be extinct by 2050.