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 that 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 from Moscow. "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 International Fund for Animal Welfare, 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 about a year ago and failed to find much evidence.
University of Alberta scientist Andrew Derocher said there is a regular, if unofficial, polar bear harvest among aboriginals in the Russian Arctic. Some of those hides are probably hitting the market and some may be laundered with Canadian documents, he said.
"It sounds like there is a market in these documents. It's a really messy situation."
But Derocher said Canadian hunts are well-managed and sustainable and the issue should be Russian law enforcement.
"We haven't really got good information from Russia to show that their populations are at risk from harvesting or poaching."
Environment Canada said it has no knowledge of its documents being misused.
"Although we have been monitoring the allegations, to our knowledge they remain unsubstantiated," said spokesman Danny Kingsberry in an email.
"Environment Canada has seen no evidence that Canadian CITES certificates are being used to illegally launder poached Russian bears. The department continually monitors our permitting process to ensure that it remains secure."
Ovsyanikov said the market is probably much larger than officials know. He said that few examples have been found of CITES certificates for sale because few are looking for them.
"There was no monitoring from the authorities," he said. "That is what we are criticizing — that law enforcement is not actively concentrating on this problem."
Ovsyanikov maintains that legal bear hunting in Canada isn't helping. Even legal hides just stimulate demand, he said, part of which will be filled by poachers.
"Canadian polar bear science is constantly repeating the major threat to polar bears is global warming," he said. "This is true.
"It's a global threat and it's a long-acting threat. But commercial trade, it is an immediate threat which we could eliminate if we could stop hunting and commercial use of polar bears."