A proposal to protect polar bears by banning the international trade in their body parts has failed at this week's meeting of the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species in Bangkok. Better known as CITES, the convention governs the international trade of imperiled plants and animals among 178 member nations. Polar bears are currently listed on CITES' Appendix II, which limits trade in their body parts. The proposal would have moved the species to Appendix I, which would have banned the trade entirely.

The proposal had been put forth by the United States, with strong support from Russia, but was opposed by Canada, the only nation that currently allows polar bear exports. Canada is home to about two-thirds of the world's polar bears.

"As polar bear hide prices have skyrocketed, more bears are being offered at auction, and hunting levels have increased," said Dan Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Association and head of the U.S. delegation to CITES. "A CITES Appendix I listing would have ensured that commercial trade would not compound the threats of habitat loss that are facing this species."

Canada, on the other hand, said this was a plea to emotion rather than science. Several Inuit delegates spoke against the ban, saying it would affect their livelihoods. About 600 polar bears are hunted in Canada each year, some of which are conducted by First Nation populations in traditional hunts, which also benefit economically from trophy hunting.

The proposal yielded surprising voting results: 38 national voted in favor of the ban, while 42 voted against it. Another 46 countries abstained from the vote.

David J. Hayes, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, called the vote "disappointing." In a prepared release, he said "we will continue to work with our partners to reduce the pressure that trade in polar bear parts puts on this iconic arctic species, even as we take on the longer term threat that climate change poses to polar bears."

Environmental groups had strong words about the vote. "The world has once again had a chance to take action to safeguard polar bears and failed," said Jeffrey Flocken of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. "Each year that this iconic species is not protected to the fullest is another year closer to losing the polar bear forever."

"CITES has left polar bears out in the cold once again," said Humane Society International wildlife director Teresa M. Telecky. "We urge officials from those countries that want to see an end to the international commercial trade in the polar bear to work to overturn this vote by gathering additional support and bringing the proposal back to the plenary meeting next week."

"Facing devastation from climate change — two thirds of the entire polar bear population will disappear by 2050 — the parties to the Convention failed to remove the additional threat of being hunted for profit for the international market," wrote Zak Smith of the NRDC.

Interestingly, the U.S. proposal was not supported by the World Wildlife Fund, which said in a statement that "habitat loss from climate warming, not international trade, is the primary driver" of polar bear population declines.

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Proposal to ban trade in polar bear parts fails at international wildlife conference
The U.S.-backed proposal was opposed by Canada, which is home to two-thirds of the world's polar bears.