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Monday, 16 October, 2000, 21:21 GMT 22:21 UK
World powers protect polar bears
Polar bear
The new treaty imposes a ban on commercial hunting
The world should be a safer place for polar bears after an agreement signed in Washington on Monday between the United States and Russia.

The two nations vowed to work together on quotas limiting how many bears can be hunted for subsistence by native tribes in Alaska and the Chukotka region of Siberia.

Conservation areas will be established and a ban on commercial hunting imposed to protect between 3,000 and 5,000 polar bears.

Many conservationists believe that the agreement will prove important for the polar bear populations on both sides of the Bering Strait.

Although polar bear numbers are currently increasing, there are concerns about the animals' long-term future with shrinking ice coverage in the Arctic Circle adversely affecting their ability to find food.

Legalised hunting

The new polar bear treaty has been modelled on a previous one between the US and Canada, which covers the southern Beaufort Sea region.

Map of the Bering Strait
Under the new agreement, bear management decisions will be made by new commissions set up in Russia and the US.

The commissions will include the participation of native tribes in Alaska and Siberia.

Specialists fear the bear populations may begin to decline as a result of the actions of poachers and commercial hunters.

Bear hides fetch thousands of dollars and there is also an illegal trade in bear gallbladders which are considered by some to have medicinal value.

The agreement
Ban on commercial hunting
Quotas for subsistence hunting
No hunting with aircraft, traps or snares
Ban on hunting female bears with cubs and bears younger than a year
No hunting near dens and nursery areas

That is why, says David Cline from the World Wildlife fund, the agreement between Russia and the US is "extremely important".

"It's better to have legalised hunts rather than widespread poaching", he says.

The extent of the ice cover in the Arctic is also diminishing year by year, and in some regions this is limiting the amount of time the bears have on the ice to hunt for seals, an important source of food.

And conservationists warn that if global warming takes hold in the way some scientists predict, the bears could face a grim future.

Bear nursery

Legalised hunting means establishing quotas for the native tribes who hunt for subsistence.

The agreement prohibits the killing of female bears with cubs and bears younger than one year. It also bans the use of aircraft, traps and snares to hunt down bears.

The US-Russia pact also establishes certain areas as off-limits.

Hunting is prohibited near bear dens, as well as in what is known as the "polar bear nursery", a Russian island 136 km (85 miles) north of the Siberian mainland.

Altogether the world has between 22,000 and 28,000 polar bears, spread over territory controlled by Canada, Greenland, Norway, Russia and the United States.

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