Arctic nations strengthen pledge to polar bear survival

Posted: 19 March 2009

Five arctic nations, committed by treaty, since 1973, to conserve polar bears, have resolved, a a meeting in Tromso, Norway, to link the future of the species to urgent action on climate change.

The decision has been welcomed by scientists working on polar bear conservaton. "We are very encouraged by the final declaration from this meeting," says Geoff York, polar bear coordinator for WWF International's Arctic Programme.

"We were concerned that some countries were lagging behind the others in their commitment to dealing with climate change, but ultimately, the parties recognized climate change as the primary threat to the future well-being of polar bears. They also recognized formally "the urgent need for an effective global response that will address the challenges of climate change", to be addressed at fora such as the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change".

Polar bears are losing their icy habitat in the Arctic: Photo: Greenpeace UK
Polar bears are losing their icy habitat in the Arctic: Photo: Greenpeace UK
Polar bears are losing their icy habitat in the Arctic and some scientists predict they will become extinct.(Photo courtesy Greenpeace UK)
The five Arctic nations signed a binding Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears in 1973. It includes provisions to protect polar bears and their habitat.

Action plan

The Norwegian government played a key role in bringing the parties together, and in setting high expectations for the meeting. Erik Solheim, Environment Minister of Norway told Norwegian television. "It would be an amazing crime against future generations if we did not save the polar bear."

The meeting made some other important advances. It has agreed to come up with a circumpolar action plan for the management of bears, and to formally designate the Polar Bear Specialist Group of the World Conservation Union (IUCN) as the scientific advisory body to the Agreement. These were both measures proposed by WWF in advance of the meeting.

"Although we are generally very pleased with the meeting outcome, this is by no means the end of the story - it is the start on the path to polar bear survival," says York. "The real proof of this new commitment to taking urgent and effective action on climate change is what leaders of these nations will commit to later this year. Ministers from these five countries are meeting in this same town toward the end of April at a meeting of the Arctic Council, and have a golden opportunity then to outline their national commitment to climate change."

Ultimately, the polar bear nations must join with other countries at the UN climate conference in Copenhagen in December 2009 to sign an effective global deal on climate change that will save the polar bears' Arctic sea ice habitat, along with the entire ice ecosystem, says WWF.

The agreement coincides with the announcement of a ban on the hunting of all harp seals less than one year old by the Russian government. The Minister of Natural Resources and Ecology, Yuriy Trutnev, described the decision as "a serious step towards the conservation of biodiversity in Russia".(See the full story on the ENS website here).