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Hunting of animals, especially large mammals, for sport is long established, but controversial. On the one hand, such hunting awakens concerns about cruelty and the rights and welfare of hunted animals among critics of hunting. On the other, hunting has a long history of co-evolution, shaped by concern for the conservation of species. One source of the modern conservation movement lies in the concern of big game hunters about their quarry, e.g., the self-styled “penitent butchers” who founded the Society for the Preservation of the Wild Fauna of the Empire in 1903 (Adams 2004). Sport hunters often argue that their activities contribute to the protection of wildlife habitat, or the persistence of “charismatic” species that might otherwise go extinct. Increasingly, this argument turns on the potential for the money spent by hunters to provide incomes for poor people who live alongside wild animals. There is, it is claimed, the potential for win-win-win outcomes, where hunters get their sport, local people receive benefits, and big fierce animals persist in the wild (Dickson et al. 2009).
This area of “conservation hunting” is explored in Inuit, Polar Bears and Sustainable Use. Conservation hunting is defined as “a form of sustainable recreational hunting that provides conservation benefits to the targeted wildlife population and social and economic benefits to local rural communities” (p. 46). The book derives from a conference in Edmonton, Canada in 2004, and draws on subsequent research projects. It offers an extended research-based reflection on the decision by the United States government to list the polar bear as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. The polar bear is a classic “flagship species” (Leader-Williams and Dublin 2007) and is claimed as an animal of global concern. At the same time, it is an animal of its place, deeply intertwined in the history and culture of Arctic peoples, and living on land that they claim and, in some regions (Canada and Greenland), over which they have a measure of rights. This gives the question of hunting its considerable depth and complexity.
This book provides an excellent review of the sustainability of polar bear hunting in the Arctic and its cultural, social, and economic context. Its scope is limited to the New World Arctic, particularly Canada. It includes 18 scholarly chapters, rich in both qualitative and empirical data. The overall style is academic, although all the chapters are readable and would be accessible to an interested lay person. The book is divided into three sections. The first one addresses the economics of hunting (chapters 1-5). It explores the economic benefits from hunting and does a good job of comparing local subsistence hunting and revenues from sport hunting by wealthy clients, mostly from the United States. The allocation of quotas is explored in some detail, as are the complex sets of attitudes and ideas that inform, and are influenced by, these different kinds of hunting.
The second section (chapters 6-9) explores various issues around environmental change, a major source of concern about the future status of polar bears, and a factor in the decision of the United States government to list them as “threatened.” An important theme is the view that “the opinions and expertise of local people continue to be ignored” (p. 108). Section three (chapters 10-15) deals with this decision directly, with a series of short statements on this list and on polar bear conservation more generally from a range of northern organisations (including the government of Nunavut), which all oppose the United States government’s list, and a review of coverage of polar bears in North American newspapers. The final part of the book (chapters 16-18) reviews issues in polar bear management in North America and offers a conclusion.
This book is scientific and rich in data and fact, but it is also a polemic. Its focus is “the management and allocation of harvests of polar bears” (p. 13). It is a sustained and reasoned critique of the listing of the polar bear as endangered, and a defence of both subsistence and guided hunting. It gives space to the voices of Inuit who live with and hunt bears, albeit in highly edited form. To the editors and authors, both Indigenous and guided hunting makes perfect sense, and the book explains why. Its data will be widely valued.
The book does not, however, explain the wider significance of the polar bear. No animal encapsulates the dilemmas of modern sport hunting better. It is a species that is probably universally recognised, and widely sentimentalised, in Europe and North America particularly, because of its many appearances in children’s stories and as toys. The polar bear has also come to epitomise the Arctic environment threatened by global climate change, becoming environmentalism’s “poster boy” (Anonymous 2007). It appears repeatedly in nature documentaries and newspapers, balanced on a fragment of drifting ice on blue Arctic seas. It also has emerged in public debate as an icon of the threat of extinction. It is “vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List because of “a suspected population reduction of >30% within three generations (45 years) due to decline in area of occupancy, extent of occurrence and habitat quality” (IUCN 2011). Killing a real-life fluffy toy, or an endangered species, or a victim of anthropogenic climate change is always going to seem deeply problematic. This book explores the hunting and conservation of the polar bear from the perspective of Arctic people and researchers. It does an excellent job—but this is just part of the story.
- ADAMS, William M., 2004 Against Extinction: the story of conservation, London, Earthscan.
- ANONYMOUS, 2007 Can Polar Bears Save the World? Simon Garfield on the new poster boys of global warming, Observer Magazine, March 4, 2007, cover text.
- DICKSON, Barney, Jon HUTTON, and William M. ADAMS (eds), 2009 Recreational Hunting, Conservation and Rural Livelihoods, Blackwells, Oxford.
- IUCN (INTERNATIONAL UNION FOR CONSERVATION OF NATURE AND NATURAL RESOURCES), 2011 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (online at: http://www.iucnredlist.org/apps/redlist/details/22823/0).
- LEADER-WILLIAMS, N. and H.T. DUBLIN, 2000 Charismatic megafauna as “flagship species”, in A. Entwistle and N. Dunstone (ed.), Priorities for the Conservation of Mammalian Diversity: Has the Panda had its Day?, Cambridge, University Press Cambridge: 53-81.