David M. Herszenhorn / The New York Times – 2013-03-06 00:58:10
MOSCOW (March 3, 2013) — With relations between Russia and the United States increasingly frosty because of entrenched disagreements over Syria, child adoptions, missile systems and other issues, the two countries have quietly joined forces to help polar bears.
Russia and the United States, two of the five countries where polar bears live, are now the main allies pushing for greater protection for the bears under a global treaty on endangered species, which is being reviewed this week at a conference in Bangkok.
“It really seems that both countries were willing to put aside their differences in order to work together to help save the polar bear,” said Jeffrey Flocken, North American regional director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
Russia’s decision to cooperate with the United States not only defies a recent wave of anti-Americanism here, but it also reverses Moscow’s opposition to a similar American proposal at the endangered species conference three years ago. The impetus for this shift may be the increasing danger to polar bears and the return to the presidency of Vladimir V. Putin, who often expresses his personal affection for wildlife and has declared 2013 to be the “Year of the Environment” in Russia.
Mr. Putin, as prime minister, traveled to the Arctic in April 2010, and in one of his highly publicized encounters with animals he was photographed tagging a bear with a collar fitted with a global positioning device. He has taken a direct personal interest in government preservation programs and has scheduled a major conference on polar bears to take place here in Moscow this fall.
Scientists and wildlife conservation groups say the world’s polar bear population, estimated at 20,000 to 25,000, is in grave peril because of climate change, which is depleting ice levels, and increased hunting and trade in skins and parts.
“We call this current situation catastrophic, because polar bears are now impacted from all sides,” said Nikita Ovsyannikov, the deputy director of Russia’s polar bear preserve on Wrangel Island, in the Chukchi Sea northwest of Alaska.
“Both our countries recognize the danger, and they understand that measures have to be taken,” Mr. Ovsyannikov said by telephone from the conference in Bangkok.
The American-Russian proposal would grant polar bears the highest level of protection under the treaty, called the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, by banning international commercial trade in skins, furs and other items made from bears. And it is one of the most contentious issues at this week’s conference.
Two other countries — Canada and Denmark, representing Greenland — oppose such a ban, setting the stage for a showdown that could hinge on the position of Norway, the fifth country where polar bears live, which has not yet announced publicly how it plans to vote.
The European Union, which controls the largest bloc of votes at the treaty conference, has put forward two alternative proposals to improve protections for polar bears without formally shifting its status and banning commercial trade. The United States is opposing those alternatives.
Daniel M. Ashe, the director of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, said he was optimistic that the American-Russian proposal would succeed. “Russia has been strongly supportive,” Mr. Ashe said by telephone from Bangkok, where he is leading the American delegation.
A similar proposal by the United States was voted down at the last conference on the treaty in 2010. Then, Russia and Norway voted no.
Only Canada, which has the world’s largest polar bear population, still permits overseas trade in bear skins and parts. Other countries have imposed export restrictions while setting their own limits on domestic hunting and sales — an issue that requires delicate negotiations with native communities that rely on bears for food, skins and other subsistence needs.
Climate change, which is depleting ice levels at a record pace, presents a double threat to polar bears — eliminating their natural habitat, while driving them closer to areas inhabited by people, making them easier to hunt. Increased industrial activity in the Arctic, including oil and gas exploration, poses additional dangers.
Mr. Ovsyannikov said that even in sanctuaries, scientists were observing a general weakening in the polar bear population, including lower reproduction rates and higher mortality.
“The situation of polar bears is getting more and more similar to the story of the Great Auk,” said Mr. Ovsyannikov, referring to the Arctic bird that became extinct in the mid-19th century. “We start thinking and start discussing what actions we have to take when it is too late.”
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