There are few products in the world that incite as much outrage as does animal fur. Fewer still have been as being as important as fur in the spread of capitalism and the pursuit of the frontier in the New World, with tobacco possibly having a case as such. But while the fur trade is mostly thought of in a historical context, and large scale animosity to the industry has increasingly affected its stature over recent years, it remains a significant sector. In fact this industry is one with over $40 billion USD in sales annually, and keeps one million people employed.
Until recently, the supply of fur was concentrated in Canada and Russia, as large swaths of their sub-arctic lands have long been the habitats for animals with the most prized pelts in the fur trade. The most common animals targeted in these areas by trappers include beavers, rabbits, foxes, martens, and otters, among many others. However, with the growth in fur farming in the last century, the dependance on trapping in the industry has been greatly reduced. As a result, there has been a significant decentralization of fur production in geographic terms, as fur can now be produced in varied climates and locations. While animal rights activism has altered consumer tastes, and thusly gradually contributed to the reduction of demand for animal furs seen in much of the Western world, this decline is being more than made up for in other parts of the world. In fact, the industry has been undergoing a remarkable period of growth, mostly driven by demand from China. Today, Asia and Eurasia together combine to account for more than two thirds of the demand for animal fur pelts and derived products internationally.
Animal fur production begins with either the trapping of wild animals or their domestic breeding on fur farms. Today, fur farmers produce more than 85% of the world’s fur supply. This difference is driven by the efficiency of farm production and farmers' abilities to raise various breeds in many different climates and conditions. Trapping can be very difficult and requires a lot of expertise, not only on the part of the trapping knowledge possessed by the trapper him or herself, but also in terms of existing in the wild, remote locations where these animals are most prevalent. As a result, trapping, although an historically important trade, has been steadily declining in importance relative to fur farming. The harvesting of furs from animals varies significantly from country to country, due to the large degree of difference in regulations, especially those regarding animal welfare and cruelty, around the world.
The fur trade has played an important role in the history of the modern world, particularly in the colonization of North America. While trapping was a significant practice in Russia as long ago as the 10th Century, it was the French, and later English, traders who started the fur trade in North America and launched the industry towards what we would recognize as being on a truly global scale. In particular, it was the French traders who began the push Westward, which gave rise to some of the earliest encounters between indigenous North American groups and Europeans. Alliances were forged with the various indigenous tribes, and the fur trade between the two grew to represent hugely important economic relationships for both parties. The pursuit of land and routes for this trade was one of the original drivers of the expansion of European colonial rule into North America, and fur resources were a very important consideration in the eventual drawing up of the territorial maps of the region, with many of these fur-influenced demarcations still roughly being used today.
As the industry has developed over the course of several centuries, the role of government has slowly increased, particularly in the developed world. While, to a certain extent, this is a result of countries involving themselves in strategically important industries, it may have even more to do with the growth in animal rights activism. The increase in this sort of compassionate dialogue has done a great deal in changing consumer preferences, and democratic governments have responded in turn to the concerns of their animal-loving citizens. Most countries involved in the fur trade regulate the treatment of animals on fur farms identically to how they would for traditional farming. Some European countries, such as England, have gone as far as placing an outright ban on the practice of fur farming. While some countries have made great strides in the protection of these animals, such changes have not been universal. China in particular has lagged in terms of adopting such measures as animal cruelty laws which would hold fur producers more accountable for inhumane fur farming practices. However, as consumers continue to become more socially and environmentally conscious, it is likely that the positive trend in terms of improving animal welfare will continue, and even spill over into the developing world.