When I was a little girl in the 1960s, a friend of my parents brought over a few unexpected gifts for me. One of the gifts was a genuine Indian tiger skin, complete with claws, head, teeth, and glass eyes. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES, also known as the Washington Treaty) wouldn’t come into force until 1975, almost a decade away, so there was nothing illegal about the gift.
I loved my tiger skin, and thought of it almost like a real animal or pet. It was a massive skin that covered almost the entire floor of my room, and I as a little girl, I liked to imagine that it protected me.
When I think back on how I felt, having the tatters of that splendid creature in my room, I feel guilt. And the guilt is mixed with an understanding for the appeal of these products. It’s a proximity to and ownership, however imaginary, of the fierce magnificence of a top predator.
I’m sure that people made money all along the line that led from where the tiger was taken to where my parent’s generous friend finally bought the tiger skin. And the economics for each individual undoubtedly seemed viable – after all, the tiger was just walking around, not doing anybody any good while standing on its own four paws. But dead and skinned, it could bring in money for the trackers, the hunters, the shippers, and the middlemen. The tiger population was already under pressure back then, but that didn’t matter. And, unlike today, each of these transactions was legal.
When I read this week about the legal trade in polar bear products and the legal hunting quota for polar bear in Canada, I think back to that tiger skin. Sure, the trade is still legal, and for whatever reason, the government considers the annual hunting and sale of 600 polar bears economically viable and environmentally sustainable ‘enough’. The polar bear is not yet protected as an endangered species under CITES, it is only considered ‘threatened’ if its habitat continues to erode, if hunting continues at unsustainable levels.
Zambia recently banned the hunting of big cats within its boundaries – the amount of revenue brought in by hunting tourism is dwarfed by that of non-lethal tourism focused on observing live animals.
If the nations which allow polar bear hunting and the trade in polar bear parts were to find it economically more interesting to preserve their dwindling populations, would that make a difference to sustainable biodiversity and the survival of top predators?
Update: 7 March 2013 – The CITES conference fails to pass a ban on the export of polar bear products, handing victory to Canada, which argued against the US and Russia-supported ban.