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Polar bears don’t have passports

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Why polar bear conservation needs more collaborative action

February 2 marks the start of the 2018 Biennial Meeting of the Parties to the five polar bear Range States in Fairbanks, Alaska − more than 40 years since the countries first came together to recognise their joint role in polar bear conservation. During that time, polar bears living in Canada, the Kingdom of Denmark, Norway, the Russian Federation and the United States have been exposed to two major threats: unregulated hunting before 1973, and loss of sea ice habitat due to climate change.  While polar bears are recovering from overhunting, the threat of climate change increases.

Without urgent action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, scientists predict we will lose a third of the world’s polar bears by 2050. But climate change is not just a problem for polar bears and the Arctic. The scale of the threat is as big as it gets – it’s global.

Ensuring polar bears have the best chance of survival needs collaborative action on two fronts.  The first front is the The Circumpolar Action Plan for the Conservation of Polar Bears (CAP). WWF’s first Polar Bear CAP Scorecard shows that the Range States have a long way to go to achieve their goals. Two years in, they have completed 5% of their 10-year plan. At the current rate, they will not meet their 2025 target.

To encourage circumpolar action and successful implementation of the CAP, WWF’s Scorecard provides recommendations to Range States moving forward. We ask them to increase their transparency and accountability to the public, increased engagement with Indigenous Peoples in polar bear management and the use of traditional knowledge, and start talking with one voice about the need for climate change action.

The Scorecard shows Range States performed better as individual countries than as a team. Polar bears don’t have passports: they roam freely across national boundaries. At best, if a government works effectively at a national level, polar bears within that country will be well-managed. But once the bears leave, they are subject to a new set of rules on trade, hunting, oil and gas and protection of denning habitats, to name a few. Working alone, Range States risk redundancies, knowledge gaps, and conservation efforts being outpaced by fast-moving threats like climate change.

Successful polar bear conservation needs more than five nations working alone or somewhat together, some of the time. Going into the next two years of CAP implementation, we ask Range States to unite so that management of polar bears can be truly adaptive and effective. Which brings us to the second front: combating climate change requires immense efforts by the entire world at every level. This includes governments setting and meeting ambitious targets for reducing global greenhouse gas emissions, right down to individuals making changes in our everyday lives that decrease our ecological footprint on the planet.

Read more about polar bears and our Polar Bear CAP Scorecard here.

Melanie Lancaster is Senior Specialist, Arctic Species for the WWF Arctic Programme.

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