Arctic Ivory Hunters Massacre Walrus and Narwhal

Commentary by Paul Watson
Founder and President of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

Headless walrus are washing up on Alaskan beaches and narwhals are being pumped full of lead.

Arctic wildlife is under assault in the quest for ivory and few dare question the losses for fear of being labelled racist.

It's a massacre protected by political correctness and those of us more concerned with ecological correctness must speak out against the slaughter and demand that the laws protecting wildlife be enforced.

Reports of headless walrus washing up on Alaskan beaches are more numerous this year than ever before. The tragedy is that decomposing headless walrus carcasses are not uncommon sights on Alaskan beaches in the summer but this year the increase in sighting has finally prompted an official investigation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"We are outraged by the shooting of elephants in Africa for their tusks," said Captain Paul Watson, "but what is happening in Alaska is no different. These walrus are being ruthlessly slaughtered for their ivory tusks and the rest of the body is discarded."

"I have seen the Yupik killing Walrus with assault rifles," said Captain Watson, "And I have seen the decapitated bodies left to rot on the beaches."*

Only Alaska Natives are allowed to hunt for walrus for subsistence but it is clear that this right is being abused. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service investigates an average of eight cases a year of wasteful takes by Alaskan Natives.

The federal Marine Mammal Protection Act requires at a minimum the heart, liver, flippers, chest meat with blubber, and some red meat be used, he said. Violators face a maximum $100,000 fine and one year in prison. Generally the law is not enforced.

In late June and early July of this year, 79 walrus carcasses were counted along a 40-mile stretch between Elim and Unalakleet - about twice as many as in any year in the past.

Ivory hunters prefer to take the entire head to get at the ivory. Two popular methods are used for removing the tusks. The heads are either cooked to loosen the tusks or buried in a hole where maggots eventually eat the flesh and loosen the tusks.

Meanwhile Inuit whale hunters in the Arctic have banned film crews from documenting their whale hunts following the release of a critical portrayal of the Arctic Bay spring narwhal hunt in National Geographic this month.

"That's to protect the people. We don't know who to trust now," said Tommy Kilabuk, chair of the Ikajutit Hunters and Trappers Association.

In May the HTA passed a bylaw that bans film crews from the floe edge after hunters received a draft copy of the article, which portrays the community's spring hunt of narwhal as wasteful, with many whales shot but never retrieved.

The author, Paul Nicklen, describes how he joined the Inuit as they slaughtered narwhal in Admiralty Inlet in June 2006 and counted 109 shots fired during the hunt, with only nine whales landed in the end.

He describes how he "watched a 13-year-old boy armed with a .30-06 rifle shooting narwhals all day, wounding many but landing none. Elders stood nearby but said nothing."

The article ends by calling on hunters to "rediscover the old wisdom of conserving game. Failure to do so denies their own proud heritage."

Kilabuk says hunters in Arctic Bay have not strayed from traditional values, and describes the article as "inaccurate" and "damaging."

"We felt we were betrayed. We really did."

"I believe Kilabuk when he says that the hunters have not strayed from traditional value," said Captain Paul Watson. "Traditionally the narwhal hunt has always been wasteful, at least for as long as the hunters have had access to guns. It was hard to be wasteful before the gun and hunting before firearms required patience and skill. The gun is the great equalizer allowing the Inuit to be as wasteful as Europeans."

The killing of the narwhals, like the walrus is for the ivory tusk. A narwhal tusk can sell for over $1,000.

Joe Tigullaraq, chair of the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board, said he worries that the portrayal of the Arctic Bay hunt will be seen by National Geographic's many readers around the world as representative of all Nunavut hunters.

"We do have 20 other communities in Nunavut that hunt narwhals," he said. "These other communities in Nunavut should not be painted with the same brush."

However, Tigullaraq said he hopes the article's publication may draw attention to flaws in present hunting techniques. "I think it's an opportune time to consider the problems."

Nicklen's article raises questions about the effectiveness of community-based management - a system introduced for seven eastern Arctic communities, including Arctic Bay, in 1999 to allow local hunters to design and enforce their own rules, as an alternative to the hated quota system.

The community-based management system expires this fall, and will be reviewed by the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans in the early winter of 2007.

Researchers believe there are between 40,000 to 70,000 narwhal around the Arctic. But counting narwhals is difficult. The animals spend most their time beneath the surface of the water, and are spread over vast distances.

A survey done by DFO suggests the number of narwhal near Arctic Bay have declined from 15,000 in 1984 to 5,000 whales in 2003.

In 2004, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada recommended that narwhal be considered a species "of special concern," in part because of the risk of over-hunting.

Nicklen, the article's author, grew up in Kimmirut. He wrote on the National Geographic website that the narwhal story "was the most stressful thing I've ever done. I feel as if I'm betraying my friends."

"But at the same time I hope that, ultimately, the DFO will work with the Inuit and help them find a better way so that their kids and grandkids can continue their traditions."

"In the end, I told this story because it's obvious that the narwhals do not have a voice, and I've done my best to fairly represent them as well as the Inuit. As a journalist, I have to tell truthful, unbiased stories of what I see, no matter how difficult it may be at times."

"There can be no justification for ivory hunting," said Captain Watson. "This is not subsistence hunting, these animals are not being slaughtered to eat, they are dying so that their ivory can be sold to rich Europeans, Japanese and North Americans. The slaughter of animals like elephants, walrus and narwhals for their ivory is one of the most despicable hunting practices in the world and brings disgrace upon the entire human race."


*Captain Watson witnessed a walrus hunt in 1981 on St. Lawrence Island and saw decapitated Walrus bodies on St. Lawrence Island and on the beach near Nome, Alaska.