Canadian hunters fight loss of Russian and Ukrainian fur markets

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North Bay (Canada) (AFP) – Trying to keep his balance on a dam, Canadian trapper Ray Gall treads cautiously as he attempts to retrieve a large black beaver caught in one of his traps.

Few people in the country still make a living solely from the business, which dates back 400 years to the first indigenous fur trades to European explorers.

But thousands of Canadians, including indigenous people, are still active in the now heavily regulated industry.

“It’s the oldest profession” in Canada, says Gall, 47, a municipal water worker who catches foxes, wolves and coyotes in his spare time in the woods about a three-hour drive north of Toronto.

“There will always be a need for hunters, whether there’s a market or not,” he comments before untangling the beaver’s carcass and stuffing it into a bundle he tosses over his shoulder.

With human encroachment reducing animal habitats, shorter winters caused by climate change, and falling fur prices, “trapping is getting harder,” says indigenous trapper Tom Borg of 70 years.

“It’s part of our heritage and it’s part of us. That’s difficult, it’s like taking a part of you away,” he says with teary eyes.

The market has been struggling under pressure from boycotts of luxury brands, the absence of Chinese buyers since the start of the pandemic and now the loss of two key markets in Russia and Ukraine since Moscow’s invasion.

A polar bear skin sits in the buyers' room at the Fur Harvesters auction in North Bay, Ontario
A polar bear skin sits in the buyers’ room at the Fur Harvesters auction in North Bay, Ontario Cole BURSTON AFP

But Robin Horwath, director of the Fur Institute of Canada and CEO of the Ontario Fur Managers Federation, is optimistic about a change.

The situation is now “stable”, he said, after it got “as low as possible in the cycle”.

Furs tied up in bales for auction

Canada is the world’s largest producer of wild skins, with some 415,000 skins sold in the 2019-2020 season for a total of C$13.8 million (US$11.0 million).

Inside North America’s last major fur auction in North Bay, some 350 kilometers north of Toronto, brokers are busy reviewing bids ahead of the big event, which is being held online for the third year in a row due to the pandemic.

Buyer Jason White looks at bear skins at Fur Harvesters auction
Buyer Jason White looks at bear skins at Fur Harvesters auction Cole BURSTON AFP

In a large warehouse, tens of thousands of animal skins, including lynxes, foxes, wolves and black bears, are tied into packages that hang on shelves, sorted by size, color and quality.

Catalog and pencil in hand, broker Michel Roberge acts as the eyes and hands of foreign buyers for whom he meticulously inspects each hide.

Buyer Howard Trager examines lynx pelts
Buyer Howard Trager examines lynx pelts Cole BURSTON AFP

“Since it is a luxury market, naturally we are hit first” in the event of a crisis, says the Montreal trader.

Coyote fur trim

Mounting pressure from animal rights activists in Europe and North America led several major luxury brands, including Dolce & Gabbana, Burberry and Chanel, to stop using fur.

“The fur industry has been around, it’s the oldest, and it’s been up and down many, many times over the last 400 years,” said Mark Downey of Fur Harvesters Auction in North Bay.

Fur goods in the window of Herman Sellers Gough Furs in Toronto's Yorkville neighborhood
Fur goods in the window of Herman Sellers Gough Furs in Toronto’s Yorkville neighborhood Cole BURSTON AFP

“Canada Goose’s exit from the fur trade…was definitely a black mark on the industry.”

But he’s sure other manufacturers will fill the “void” left by the Canadian company, which announced last year that it would soon stop using coyote fur trim on the hoods of its parkas, a feature that for five decades had helped maintain warm the faces of the arctic explorers. .

The industry will also have to deal with a lack of access to the markets of Ukraine and Russia, the latter being the world’s second largest for fur, but subject to Canadian and allied economic sanctions.

“The war between Ukraine and Russia is a big handicap because our (other) big buyers from Greece, Italy and Turkey … their manufactured (fur) products are sold in Russia and Ukraine,” Downey explained, subject to the sanctions.

Hides are placed on racks before being processed and sorted
Hides are placed on racks before being processed and sorted Cole BURSTON AFP

“But (the industry) will come back again,” he said. “The demand is huge,” especially in Asia.

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