The first commercial fur trade in Canada emerged with the British Hudson’s Bay Company in the 1600s. Later, European whalers, sealers and trappers killed polar bears for their fur. The increasing demand for white fur motivated many hunting expeditions and local hunters to engage in the commercial fur industry.

After 1973, the polar bear skin trade slowly became more controlled, but few publications have documented it. Most people do not even know that a legal or illegal trade of polar bear skins and other body parts exists. Whereas the majority of attention goes to controversies about the trade of ivory and rhino horns, the polar bear skin trade rarely reaches the headlines of international media. Understanding the market for polar bear skins starts with the trade chain, illustrated in figure below.

Copyright: Polar Bears & Humans project / Ole J LioddenTrade chain for polar bear skins.

Fur tags
The core of the international polar bear skin trade is the Canadian tag system. A legal fur tag makes it possible to prove the origin and legality of the skin. Theoretically, the combination of export permits, import permits and a tag system should make it possible to track each skin from the hunter to the end buyer.

After a successful polar bear hunt, hunters must register each killed bear and its appropriate tag with the provincial or territorial authority. The main information registered includes the tag number, hunter identification, location of the kill and sex of the bear. Some settlements also cooperate with polar bear researchers who want to collect tissue samples from the carcasses.

The Nunavut Wildlife Act regulates the use of fur tags in Nunavut, where most skins originate. It clearly states, “A person who harvests a furbearer, for which a total allowable harvest is established, must attach a fur tag to the hide or pelt” and “the fur tag must be attached in a way that it cannot be reused.” This means a tag must be attached permanently to each skin, and it cannot be removed or replaced by another tag. Tagging may be delayed until the hide is fleshed, but the tag must be attached immediately afterward.

The The Nunavut Wildlife Act also outlines strict regulations for exporting polar bear skins from Nunavut: “Unless the fur tag is attached to the hide or pelt, no person is allowed to export the pelt or hide from Nunavut, or traffic the pelt or hide.” In other words, a polar bear skin without a fur tag cannot be exported legally. To reduce the possibility of illegal trading, the fur tag regulations state, “A fur tag may not be attached to anything other than the hide or pelt for which it was issued.” Indeed, the fur tag is the key to legal trade and must be permanently attached to the skin at all times.

Each fur tag allows a hunter to kill only one polar bear. Indigenous hunters may keep, trade or sell polar bear skins, but most hunters prefer to sell them. Indeed, from 2005–14 Canada exported an average of 57% of polar bear skins originating there, according to the official Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) statistics and the hunting statistics (see the Polar Bears & Humans book for more detailed information).

Hunters can sell skins through their provincial or territorial government, which also takes care of the shipments to auction houses. The Government of Nunavut, for example, measures and grades polar bear skins and pays local hunters 50% of the estimated skin value in advance. In the NWT the government-run Genuine Mackenzie Valley Fur Program provides guaranteed advanced payment – CAD $1,750 for polar bears in 2018 – and a ‘Prime Fur Bonus’ of CAD $450 if the auction price for the actual skin is higher than the advanced price. Both programs guarantee the hunters instant payment for their skins, but also make polar bear hunting more commercially motivated and selective for the biggest, healthiest bears with the best fur quality.

Fur Auctions
Polar bear skins are sent to fur auctions, which attract international buyers. Most skins are sold through Fur Harvesters Auction Inc., which holds auctions in Ontario once or twice a year. Historically, the auction house published reports from each auction that included the prices and numbers of polar bear skins sold. However, the company has kept those reports secret since 2010. Read a story about a fur trade auction in 2011 in the Canadian National Post newspaper

Once a skin is sold, the hunter receives the remaining balance – if any – from the auction house. This process allows Inuit hunters to get the highest value for larger, top-grade polar bear skins; similar to trophy hunters, this motivates them to kill the largest polar bears. The commercial polar bear skin trade thus negatively affects polar bear subpopulations by encouraging hunters to actively remove the largest, fittest animals to increase economic benefit for themselves and auction house.

Fur dealers
Fur dealers typically buy, sell, trade or deal in raw furs of furbearing or non-game mammals. To engage in this industry usually requires a fur dealer’s license. However, licensed trappers who sell raw furs from animals they have lawfully killed do not need a dealer’s license.

International fur dealers frequently participate in Canadian fur auctions, and they import or export polar bear skins to destination countries. Each dealer typically has a network of retailers and private buyers who are willing to pay a substantially higher price for a skin at the final destination than was the auction price in Canada. Some dealers may also represent themselves in more than one country and have a network of international buyers.

Some fur dealers may specialise not in the fur trade but as general trading companies. Such companies have experience with logistics, international markets and imports. They also have established trading routes via ships or planes between countries, making it easy to get involved in the polar bear skin industry.

CITES Export permits
After a polar bear skin has gone through an auction house and is sold to an international buyer, it is ready for export. A CITES export permit must be issued before a polar bear skin may be legally exported. Before CITES issues an export permit, the CITES Management Authority must determine, with the assistance of the CITES Scientific Authority, the Wildlife Enforcement Directorate, and the relevant authorities of the province or territory from which the skin originates, that the polar bear skin was legally killed and that its export will not be detrimental to the survival of the species. This means the polar bear fur must have a legal fur tag, and the polar bear hunt must be sustainable.

Once the exporter receives the CITES export permit from ECCC, the polar bear skin is ready for export. The exporter must follow any terms and conditions specified in the permit, and exportation must occur before the expiry date. The original permit must accompany the skin during shipping.

One of the most important players in the trade chain is the courier, who physically transports polar bear skins across the border between the exporter and the importer. Couriers, who may work for auction houses, taxidermists, fur dealers or international shipping companies, also provide information for the import declaration, and the customs departments of some importing countries trust the accuracy and information courier companies provide. For example, rarely do customs departments in importing countries control the information on the declaration, but they often trust that the import value and tax tariff code are correct. Similarly, customs officials rarely open packages and check them against the importation papers, putting a lot of responsibility upon the courier companies. Most international shipping companies, such as DHL, FedEx and UPS, do not officially allow shipments of fur, but the couriers who work for them may not enforce this restriction.

Before a skin can leave Canada, the CITES export permit must be presented to the customs – for validation and stamping. If Canadian customs does not validate polar bear skins with CITES export permits at the time of export, the export permit is deemed invalid and the importing country may seize the skin and declare it as illegal. The importing country should accept only skins with the original fur tag attached and a validated permit. Not all importing countries follow this practice, thus weakening control over the skin trade.

In the US and Mexico all importation of polar bear skins and body parts is illegal, even if the parts have validated export permits. Border control agents of these countries will likely stop those attempting to import polar bear skins. They will then report offenders to Interpol, CITES or other authorities for further investigation.

Polar bear skins are among the most sought-after fur products on the market. Praised for their large size and rarity, these skins symbolise luxury and social status, making them popular among the growing number of wealthy people, especially in China and Russia. For some people, a big polar bear rug on the floor or a fully mounted polar bear in the trophy room is the ultimate status symbol, carrying even more rank than a luxury car.

Many skin buyers are not concerned about polar bear conservation and may not know or care about where polar bear skin products originate. Furthermore, the CITES certificate and identifying fur tag may have disappeared from a skin before it reaches the end buyer, thus promoting buyers’ ignorance about the product’s origin. Tracing unmarked skins back to the local hunter or the area where the bear was killed may be impossible.

Fur dealers often assure polar bear skin buyers that polar bear hunting is limited and sustainable, and that the bears were taken during subsistence hunting. However, not many polar bear skins are taken according to such ideals. Consequently, some buyers purchase polar bear skins without knowing the real circumstances and challenges the hunted bears faced.

Learn more about polar bears
The information on this webpage is from Chapter 6.1 in the Polar Bears & Humans book. If you want to learn more about polar bears and conservation, order a copy of the book, and support the Polar Bears & Humans project.