Japan faces pressure to stop importing polar bear products

by Tetsuji Ida

Kyodo News

Japan is considered the world’s No. 1 importer of polar bear products, with items such as furs and rugs widely sold on the Internet.

But with the bears at risk due to climate change and the U.S. government making moves to protect them, Japan could become a target of criticism for its lax policy.

According to environmental protection groups, exports and imports of skins and other bear products resulting fetch a high price on the international market, which is reflected on Japanese Web sites.

An estimated 400 to 700 polar bear pelts are bought and sold every year around the world. Canada is the leading exporter and Japan the leading importer.

Import data shows that customers in Japan purchased 413 fur pieces in 2007. Japan became the No. 1 buyer when the United States designated polar bears as an endangered species and imposed a ban on imports of bear products in 2008.

The U.S. government is studying a proposal calling for prohibitions on international transactions of arctic polar bears, including furs and stuffed bears, under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, also known as the Washington Convention.

Environmental groups are also working with governments and individuals in various countries to support banning such transactions.

The United States is expected to decide by mid-October whether to make the proposal after considering opinions of other governments as well as environmental groups.

It is studying the possibility of proposing to a meeting of signatory countries next March that the level of protection for polar bears stipulated in the Washington Convention be raised to appendix No. 1 from No. 2. This would institute a total international ban on commercial polar bear transactions. Appendix No. 2 makes it obligatory for exporting countries to issue permits.

More than two-thirds of nations attending the conference will have to vote yes if shipments of polar bears are to be outlawed.

Polar bears in the United States, Canada, Greenland, Russia and Norway have become a symbol of the threat of climate change. According to scientists, melting sea ice in the Arctic has increased the number of bears dying of starvation and has cut down on breeding.

Environmental groups, including the International Fund for Animal Welfare, have launched a campaign to urge the U.S. government to submit the proposal to the Washington Convention meeting, saying that the illegal hunting of polar bears for commercial purposes threatens their habitat.

“Polar bears are popular in Japan, but they are under threat of extinction due to the effects of climate change,” said Naoko Funabashi of the IFAW Japan office. “Imported polar bear rugs and ornaments are being sold domestically. Together with the protection of the habitat of polar bears, a ban on commercial transactions is a very important measure to protect them.”