Climate

Polar Bears Among 31 New Species Issued Protection Status By UN Conservation Body

CREDIT: AP Photo/U.S. Fish and Wild Life Service, Steve Amstrup, FILE

The Eleventh Meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) has extended protections to scores of migratory birds, fish and mammals.

Over 100 countries came together in Quito, Ecuador for a week of “intense negotiations” that concluded over the weekend and resulted in a record 31 new species gaining protection status. Polar bears, frequently invoked as a symbol of the impacts of climate change on animals, were among the species awarded greater protections by the UN Conservation body.

Signatory countries are required to pass laws and enter into international agreements that ensure the conservation of animals added to the list. However, mere addition to the list does not allow for the sanctioning of violating countries. Addition amounts to an international legal recognition that the species in question is threatened, and often leads to stricter conservation agreements between the parties involved.

“The decisions made by Governments at the CMS Conference reflects the growing awareness that the responsibility for protecting wildlife is a shared one, and that the threats to wildlife can be tackled most effectively through global cooperation,” said Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme.

Marine life composed the bulk of species granted protection status, as 21 shark, ray and sawfish species were added to the list. The hammerhead shark and the Cuvier’s beaked whale — the deepest diving whale in the world — were among the newly protected marine species. The countries in Quito also agreed to stop the practice of finning, which involves cutting the fins off of sharks and releasing them back into the sea to die. Shark fins are a delicacy in some countries.

The delegations also passed resolutions dealing with plastic debris in the ocean, and issued guidelines to implementing renewable energy like hydro, solar, and wind power in animal-friendly manners.

Among the mammals issued protection status, the polar bear is certainly the highest profile. The motion to protect the estimated 20,000-25,000 remaining polar bears was brought forth by Norway. The species is threatened by melting polar ice, Arctic oil exploration, and hunting. It was added to Appendix II of the endangered species list, destined for “species that need or would benefit greatly from international cooperative conservation efforts.”

Still some say this is not enough to protect the world’s largest land carnivore. “Appendix II does not mean that sufficient conservation action will be taken to protect the well-being of polar bears,” Dr. Masha Vorontsova, director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare Russia told The Guardian. “This is an important first step, but it must not be the last if we wish to save the polar bear.”

Inuit groups present in Quito were opposed to the motion to add polar bears to the endangered species list, arguing that the addition undermined previous conservation and population management efforts and “vilified” Inuit communities.

“The proposal under consideration does not explain how a listing will enhance existing conservation mechanisms at the international, national and regional levels — some of them more than 40 years old — that are well-managed and collaborative, supporting both the conservation of the polar bear and the interests of Inuit,” said Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami President Terry Audla, in a November 6 news release.

The latest additions to the endangered species list — a record number — is bittersweet. It means progress for conservation efforts on a global scale, but also indicates that more and more species are nearing extinction every day. Part of a greater trend of environmental degradation, the loss of animal populations worldwide are a powerful reminder that much more needs to be done to protect the environment.

“Like never before in the 35-year history of CMS, migratory animals have become the global flagships for many of the pressing issues of our time. From plastic pollution in our oceans, to the effects of climate change, to poaching and overexploitation, the threats migratory animals face will eventually affect us all”, said Bradnee Chambers, the Convention’s Executive Secretary.

Joaquim Moreirasalles is an intern at ThinkProgress.