When the news broke recently that a trophy hunter paid $350,000 for the opportunity to kill a critically endangered black rhinoceros, a groundswell of outrage surged through the media. But this record-breaking permit fee, which is slated to be donated to anti-poaching efforts, is a drop in the bucket compared to the millions of dollars in revenue generated by legal polar bear hunting in Canada. A stuffed polar bear can fetch as much as $100,000 on the open market, and little, if any, of that money will be used for polar bear conservation.

The sanctioned hunting of rhinos and polar bears, whether for commercial profit or to raise money for charity, seems like a conservation tragedy – a failing of the systems put in place to protect species threatened with extinction. Some experts argue, however, that worrying about the fate of a handful of animals that find themselves in the trophy hunters’ crosshairs is not only a waste of time for conservationists, but actually damages efforts to protect the species.

“The real tragedy here is that the one rhino that will be killed as a result of [the recent] auction has received a disproportionate amount of media attention compared to the hundreds of rhinos lost to poaching each year, which remain largely invisible,” argues Jason G. Goldman in his article in Conservation magazine.

The problem of misplaced media attention is at the heart of the scientific debate on how to stop polar bears’ march toward extinction.

28 01 2014 Polar Bear Climate Change
Some experts argue that the media's focus on the threat posed by trophy hunting has shifted attention away from the real problem: polar bears are being wiped out by climate change, not hunting. Image: Michael Bamford, Flickr

In 2013, the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) met to discuss a proposal to transfer polar bears from Appendix II to Appendix I, a move that would have banned the trade in polar bear products in international markets. This proposal had vocal support from a number of NGOs, including the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Humane Society International, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, which argued that CITES must ensure that "international commercial trade in polar bears comes to an end in order to eliminate this threat to the species’ survival."  

Other organizations, including the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group and the government of Canada, argued that international trade is not a threat to polar bears. A majority of CITES member countries agreed, and the proposal did not pass.

Some NGOs regarded this decision as a terrible blow to polar bear conservation. But one group of academics has identified the media attention surrounding the CITES proposal as an even bigger threat to polar bears.

A recent scientific article appearing in the journal Global Environmental Change analyzed the frenzy of media attention that the CITES proposal received, and concluded that "by rendering discourses of commercial hunting and a lucrative global trade in polar bear parts highly visible, sustainable hunting and climate change-induced habitat loss were rendered invisible."

For many conservationists working to ensure the survival of polar bears, this shifting of media focus away from climate change was regarded as the worst possible outcome of the public debate on polar bear hunting.

“The problem of misplaced media attention is at the heart of the scientific debate on how to stop polar bears’ march toward extinction.”

"Restricting legal trade across international borders has no guarantee of affecting harvest, and affecting harvest is not really the problem," suggested polar bear scientist Steven Amstrup in an interview with Laurel Neme of National Geographic in the run up to the CITES vote. "Saving polar bears is all about stopping temperature rise."

Polar Bears International, the NGO for which Amstrup is a scientific advisor, emphasizes that it is the melting of sea-ice in the Arctic that remains the primary threat to polar bears’ survival – not direct hunting. Amstrup expressed his frustration to NPR recently about the failure of governments to address the issue of global warming: "It's really, really clear we have a problem. And yet we see very little action on either the national or even the international scale."

The question conservationists – and the media – need to grapple with is how to acknowledge the outrage that many feel at allowing hunters to target polar bears (and other vulnerable species) without losing sight of the most important threat to their survival: greenhouse gas emissions. For some polar bear experts, this might mean leaving the issue of trophy hunting off the table. For now.

Top header image: longhorndave, Flickr