We’re shooting polar bears?!?

International fur buyers are snapping up pelts at record prices. Nicholas Kohler went inside the auction house.

We're shotting polar bears?!?

Photograph by Jessica Darmanin

When lot No. 19002—a polar bear skin more than 10 feet in length—came up for auction in North Bay, Ont., a few Saturdays ago, Zhiqing Xu lifted his hand in the air and just left it there. The unorthodox manoeuvre forced Mark Downey, the auctioneer at the time, to belt out the skin’s rocketing price in one long, voice-destroying tear. Beside Xu sat his 21-year-old son Jason, who acted as interpreter and whispered a running translation of Downey’s rapid-fire patter into his father’s ear: “$53 is here, fiftythreefiftyfourfiftyfiveandfiftysixandfiftyseven, $57 is left, $58 is Billy, $59, and $60’s there—HOOO!!!—$60’s right, it’s on the right at $60—HOOO!!!—your bid’s sixtyoneandsixtytwo . . . ”

Even as the dollar figure soared, that arm stayed fixed, raised in a gesture that told competing bidders: back off. Xu, who moved to Vancouver from Beijing several years ago, went on to capture lot No. 19002. The price: $8,400. He spent thousands more on a second polar bear hide and a timber wolf skin. “Polar bear is a rare animal,” Jason, translating for his father, later told Maclean’s. “Not a lot of other places sell them—only Canada.”

Only Canada and, but for the small handful of polar bear pelts available each year at a competing auction house in Toronto, only at the Fur Harvesters Auction in North Bay, a town of 54,000 a few hours north of Toronto perched on the frozen lip of Lake Nipissing, a Group of Seven winter postcard come to life. The auction, which specializes in wild rather than ranched fur—from beaver to bobcat to muskrat to raccoon and coyote—has operated here in one form or another since 1947 and has long attracted international buyers. In the past, those fur shoppers came mainly from the U.S., Italy, Greece and other traditional fur-buying nations.

That’s changing. This auction was Jason and Zhiqing Xu’s first time here. Their purchases, which they said were destined for China as gifts, make them part of a growing cohort of new fur buyers with roots in mainland China and Russia, where an appetite for fur, and above all white fur from Canada’s Arctic North, is pushing to unprecedented heights prices for Arctic wolf, Arctic fox and—especially—polar bear pelts.

Photo gallery: the flourishing business of polar bear pelts

Many Canadians are likely unaware of the international trade in polar bear skins, particularly since the animal has become a sort of four-legged shorthand for climate change—that solitary beast swimming into a vast expanse of iceless sea in An Inconvenient Truth. That loss of habitat, an undeniable reality in the southern Hudson Bay and elsewhere, has triggered an ongoing debate about the health of Canada’s polar bear population, one that frequently pits scientists and environmentalists in the South against Inuit in the North. Each year, Aboriginal hunters and foreign sportsmen pursuing the animals alongside Aboriginal guides kill some 500 polar bears (there is no federal cap, and that number depends on shifts in geographic harvest quotas and on First Nations treaties). Many of the resulting polar bear skins find their way to market.

The North Bay auction—with its quick monologue of soaring numbers and the auctioneer’s spotters alongside him pointing out new bids with howls of “up, up, up,” and whooping “hooooos”—is never more electric than when the floor opens for polar bear skins. Some 84 were available on Jan. 7, 48 of those permitted for export. “When the market’s hot,” says Downey, who is also Fur Harvesters’ CEO, “you can really feel it.”

And while wealthy clients in Europe, the U.S. and Japan once shelled out top dollar for fishing flies finished with polar bear fur, polar bear rugs and for stuffed polar bears—the fur-covered totems we all know from nature museums and airport terminals—the market has shifted. “The price is going higher because we were missing two big nations—Russia and China,” says Carlo Guida, a long-time Italian buyer from Naples wearing a luxurious purple cashmere sweater. “Now, what we liked before, they like today. The difference is, these two countries represent half the world.”

In the past, raw, untreated polar bear skins rarely fetched much more than $5,000—and usually much less than that. Not anymore. “The last two years they’ve gone up by over 200 per cent,” says Dag Larsen, a Toronto broker scouting furs for clients in Greece, Russia and Norway, and who was dressed in one of the white lab coats that buyers wear to protect their clothes from the oily pelts (Fur Harvesters supplies nail brushes in the bathroom for those going through beaver). Surrounding him, flat and lifeless as great autumn leaves, lay the dozens of polar bear skins slated for auction the next day. Bids for what ended up being the dearest skin, a spotless white specimen that was also over 10 feet in length, started at $7,000 and didn’t stop until they’d reached $12,400—$1,400 more than last year’s top seller, a previous record. It went to Anna and Steve Gao, whose Mississauga, Ont.-based business, Canadian Intertrade JJ Ltd., ships furs to China and elsewhere.

Demand from Russia and China is one reason prices are high. Another is concern that the trade in polar bear parts will soon be banned. That could happen in early 2013, when the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) will meet in the Thai resort town of Pattaya. In 2010, the last round of negotiations among CITES members, American delegates, pressed by a powerful environmental lobby, pushed to “uplist” polar bears to Appendix 1 of the agreement, a designation that would have put an end to the commercial sale of their parts on the world market. Canada vigorously opposed the bid, arguing that trade poses no risk to the species and that a prohibition would do economic harm to the Inuit. Indeed, Canada tends to be bullish on the health of our polar bears. Though the U.S. classified it as a threatened species in 2008, the polar bear has been listed here as a “species of special concern” since 1991, a step below “threatened” and two below “endangered.” The designation hasn’t been without controversy, both domestic and international. The stakes are high: 15,000 of the world’s 25,000 or so polar bears live here, and many scientists and environmentalists argue the species is in greater peril than the listing reflects. Most Inuit, as well as the federal and territorial governments, on the other hand, say any assessment should take into account traditional Aboriginal knowledge, and that polar bear populations are healthy or even increasing.

The U.S. lost its bid to uplist polar bears; it will likely redouble its efforts in 2013. Hence the high prices. “It’s sort of the last-chance-to-buy phenomenon,” says Andrew Derocher, a polar bear biologist at the University of Alberta. “That’s one of the real rubs here—we’re the only international supplier of hides right now. And, of course, that makes us a little bit vulnerable.” The possibility of a worldwide ban wasn’t lost on North Bay’s buyers, who know that the January auction and a second Fur Harvesters sale in June may represent a final opportunity to buy. “It’s just a matter of time,” says Winston Shi, a 30-year-old marketing analyst who lives in Markham, Ont., and who was bidding for skins as a collector. “This could be the last chance.”

Mark Downey is a fur evangelist. A solidly built man, he began in the business as a trapper, still harvests beaver, and learned to handle high-tempo auctions while still very young, after an auctioneer known for steering bids with a shot of whisky in his hand got fed up, shoved him in front of buyers and left. “The fur business gets into your blood,” he says. “The best people in the world are the trappers that catch the product and the crew of people you deal with from all walks of life.” Within that business—for Downey anyway—nothing beats wild fur. “It’s unique,” he says. “Like fingerprints.”

The wild fur business is equally singular. It is ancient, and to witness a bidding war at Fur Harvesters, over Arctic fox or beaver, is to watch unfold one of this country’s founding rituals. Samuel de Champlain’s part in a bloody 17th-century Aboriginal conflict known as the Beaver Wars is crucial to our history, and Downey claims it’s just by accident that the Fur Harvesters’ street number on North Bay’s Bond Street is 1867. Here, the windowless showrooms, ripe with the heady odour of dried animal skins, drip with bobcat and timber wolf, foxes of all regions and colours, with squirrel and fisher. Grizzly pelts cover the floor in one room, black bear another, and downstairs stand endless racks of dried, stretched beaver. This is where Canada Goose sources much of the coyote fur it uses to trim its coats and jackets—“that company’s on fire, we can’t supply enough,” says Downey—and where northern outfitters pick up the dense wolverine used to trim Arctic parkas.

In another room the 80 or so polar bear skins lay strewn—a visitor can’t help but imagine the skins springing to lumbering life—and the tire-kickers flip through them looking at quality, the skill with which the hunter cut the pelt from the carcass (a solid five hours work when done right), ferreting out unwanted scars from now-forgotten fights. Less white than yellow, the fur is often stained by the fat of seals, the polar bear’s primary staple, giving the hide a pale orange hue. Tanners arrive in the days prior to auction to showcase their fur prowess—the bluish-purple raccoon furs are big in Russia—and to quietly advise buyers on what skins to focus on at auction, eyeing the imperfections with the attention of diamond appraisers.

The buyers know each other from competing on the auction floor here, at Fur Harvesters’ much larger annual auction in Seattle, and from major fur shows in Beijing, Hong Kong, Istanbul and Milan. The camaraderie runs deep. In North Bay, Guida, the Naples-based furrier, made arrangements to take over the kitchen of a local Italian restaurant and made everyone spaghetti.

Though Canada’s polar bear populations are generally well managed, some geographic zones, like Baffin Bay and the Kane Basin in Nunavut’s Far North, have not been inventoried in 15 years, even though their harvest rates remain relatively high. “Fifteen years is a long time,” says the U of A’s Derocher. “Especially when you’re trying to maximize harvest.” There’s good evidence the spike in polar bear prices has contributed to over-harvesting in at least one jurisdiction—Quebec, a province that enforces no quota. Early this year, word spread that hunters from the northern Quebec community of Inukjuak had killed as many as 70 polar bears last season—an enormous jump over past years and an unsustainable harvest rate for the southern Hudson Bay polar bear population, which scientists worry is already under pressure from climate change. Ontario, Nunavut and Quebec, which share the population, later hammered out a deal on the number of polar bears they could harvest between them, settling on 56 bears. Yet even that may be too high, says U of A research scientist Ian Stirling, who draws an analogy with the Atlantic cod fishery: “People kept saying, ‘There’s lots of cod, there’s lots of cod, there’s lots of cod,’ until there weren’t any. There’s a risk the same could happen in some polar bear populations.”

The spike in kills around Inukjuak is thought to have begun when a buyer arrived in the region and announced he’d pay big money in advance for furs. “Suddenly hunters heard, ‘People will give us money even before we hunt!’ ” says Drikus Gissing, director of wildlife management for the Nunavut government. “Then when people started hunting all these bears, really, the money they got was not a lot—$2,000, $3,000 a hide.” It wouldn’t be the first time southerners have taken advantage of Inuit hunters. For decades, private buyers from as far away as Japan made the trek north, moving from community to community picking up cheap skins. In the Northwest Territories, government bureaucrats once offered hunters just $250 per pelt in advance of whatever the skin fetched at auction months later. Only a handful of hunters accepted the offer, preferring to sell skins outright for quick cash—often as little as $3,000 a bear. Francois Rossouw, who manages the government program, told the hunters that the foreign buyers were making much more money off the bears: “But these guys [the hunters] needed money.”

This year, in response to the hot market and to stabilize hunters’ earnings, the Northwest Territories upped the ante, offering advances of $1,750. That incentive has suddenly put the territorial government in control of almost all the skins taken in the jurisdiction, a system that is beefing up the government’s capacity to track furs. Thanks to an exclusive marketing contract with Fur Harvesters, those skins are being funnelled through the North Bay auction, which has a similar agreement with Nunavut. The approach gives Fur Harvesters CEO Downey obvious satisfaction. “They ship them down here under one venue and we advertise to the world and the world comes here,” he says. “You find out exactly what the real price is and the hunter’s getting what he should be getting.” He adds: “I started as a trapper and it’s my job to fight like a tiger to get as much money as I can for the guy who’s getting his hands cold, wet and dirty.”

That sense of satisfaction was only deepened by the auction results for Jan. 7, when foreign buyers, many of them inexperienced, rushed to outbid the old hands in the room. “This is what you call pissing money into the wind,” one fur business veteran said after abandoning one round of bids. “It’s hard work, raising your hand,” he explained. The new buyers went on to enter bidding wars amongst themselves, ratcheting prices up even higher—free of gravity, to a place where the air became too thin to support the purchases. “Some people, they screw the market—they don’t know what they’re doing,” says a 28-year-old man named Hawk who moved to Canada from mainland China some years ago and describes himself as a full-time hunter. “That’s why the price is going higher and higher.”

Soon another bidder, in a now familiar move, raised his hand and parked it high above his head. It was one long, continuous salute to soaring prices. After a while, with bids still mounting, the buyer made a show of using his second arm to support the bidding one; he had no plans to let this skin go. Downey, on break from his auctioneer’s duties, chuckled at the man. Slipping past the other bidders, smiling broadly, Downey slapped him on the back and, congratulating him on his new skin, discretely placed a clutch of Cuban cigars on the table in front of him.

A champion of trappers and hunters, Downey had good reason to be happy. Those rocketing prices are great for the North and for Inuit hunters. Many Canadians may wonder if it’s a price worth paying.

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