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A major wildlife meeting of world governments on Thursday shunned calls to ban international trade in polar bears, despite growing fears for the world's largest carnivorous land animal.
A US proposal to add the polar bear to Annex I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) was rejected by 42 votes to 38, with 46 abstentions among the nations present for the poll in Bangkok.
Polar bears are currently listed on Annex II of CITES, which imposes strict controls over their international trade.
But the United States -- which along with Canada, Russia, Denmark (Greenland) and Norway hosts a global population of 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears -- wanted to upgrade their status to ban all international trade.
"The polar bear is facing a grim future, and today brought more bad news. The continued harvest of polar bears to supply the commercial international trade is not sustainable," Dan Ashe, director of the US fish and wildlife service, said in response to the rejection.
The proposal, which needed support from a two-third majority, can be re-examined at a plenary session of the 178 CITES member nations next week. A similar bid was unsuccessful at the last CITES meeting in 2010.
About half of the roughly 800 polar bears killed each year end up in the international trade, mostly wild bears from Canada, according to expert estimates cited by the US.
The animals are prized for their skins -- particularly in Russia -- as well as other body parts such as skulls, claws and teeth.
Polar bears are widely seen as the animal on the front lines of global warming and will be hit-hard by melting polar ice caps.
The CITES debate focuses on the additional threat to the species posed by its international trade.
But neither the CITES Secretariat nor some major conservation organisations such as Traffic and WWF supported the US proposal, saying habitat loss from climate change is a far bigger threat.
Canada, which hosts the largest portion of the global population of polar bears, opposes a ban, citing the need to preserve the traditions of the Inuit, an indigenous minority living mostly in the north of the country.