Canadian trappers fight loss of fur markets in Russia and Ukraine

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

Few people in the country still manage to make a living solely from the business, which dates back 400 years to the first indigenous exchanges of skins with European explorers.

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

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

“There will always be a need for trappers, whether there is a market or not,” he comments before unraveling the beaver carcass and stuffing it into a bag that he throws over his shoulder.

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

“It’s part of our heritage and it’s part of us. So it’s hard, it’s like we take a piece out of you,” he comments, his eyes misty.

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

A polar bear pelt sits in the buyers’ lounge at the Fishermen’s Fur Auction in North Bay, Ontario Cole BURSTONAFP

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

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

Skins tied in bundles for auction

Canada is the world’s largest producer of wild furs, with some 415,000 pelts sold in the 2019-20 season for a total of C$13.8 million (US$11.0 million).

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

Buyer Jason White examines bear pelts at fur harvesters auction
Buyer Jason White examines bear pelts at fur harvesters auction Cole BURSTONAFP

In a vast warehouse, tens of thousands of animal skins – including lynx, foxes, wolves and black bears – are tied in bundles hanging from 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 fur.

Buyer Howard Trager examines Lynx pelts
Buyer Howard Trager examines Lynx pelts Cole BURSTONAFP

“As it’s a luxury market, naturally we are the first affected” in the event of a crisis, explains the Montreal merchant.

Coyote fur trim

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

“The fur industry exists, it’s the oldest, and it’s risen and fallen many, many times over the last 400 years,” said Mark Downey of the Fur Harvesters Auction in North Bay.

Fur items at Herman Sellers Gough Furs storefront in the Yorkville neighborhood of Toronto
Fur items at Herman Sellers Gough Furs storefront in the Yorkville neighborhood of Toronto Cole BURSTONAFP

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

But other manufacturers are sure to fill the “void” left by the Canadian company, which announced last year that it would soon stop using coyote fur trim on its parka hoods – a hallmark which for five decades had helped keep the faces of Arctic explorers warm. .

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

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

Skins rest on shelves before being processed and graded
Skins rest on shelves before being processed and graded Cole BURSTONAFP

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