By Bob Weber
Russian officials are becoming increasingly concerned about polar bear poachers in their country using Canadian documents to disguise illegally hunted pelts.
"I think it is a real problem," said Nikita Ovsyanikov, one of Russia's top polar bear scientists and a member of the polar bear specialist group, the leading international research consortium on the mighty and controversial predators.
Ovsyanikov claims Canadian documents required to bring hides into the country are being separated from the shipments they originally accompanied and sold separately. The certificates are then applied to skins from Russian polar bears to make them appear as if they have been legally hunted and imported.
Canada is the only country in the world that allows sport hunting of polar bears, which makes it the only country to issue certificates under the Convention on Trade In Endangered Species that allow polar bear products to cross borders.
"I'm aware of two cases where not pelts, but certificates were offered for sale on the Internet," Ovsyanikov in an interview with The Canadian Press.
"The price was $1,000 so it was quite a profitable business."
Groups such as the International Fund for Animal Welfare have raised similar concerns.
They have released an Internet screen grab from last October showing what appears to be a Canadian CITES certificate along with a polar bear rug. The price is 30,000 rubles, about $1,000.
"It was marked 'Sold,'" translated Maria Vorontsova, a member of the Fund's Moscow branch. "It was referring to the certificate, not the hide."
Ovsyanikov said polar bear hides sell in Russia for up to $50,000. Such pelts are increasingly popular among Russia's elite. Canadian auction houses have said they can't meet demand for the hides, most of which go to Russia.
Russian officials, supported by the IFAW, used concerns over the Canadian documents aiding poachers to argue that all trade in polar bear parts should be banned at the recent CITES meeting in Bangkok.
However, Canadian scientists aren't sure there's a problem.
Geoff York of the World Wildlife Fund said his group looked into the accusations and failed to find much evidence.
Environment Canada, meanwhile, said it has no knowledge of its documents being misused.