Friday, March 25, 2011

Tusk Smugglers Convicted

Photo by National Geographic
Twice in the last month, individuals in the U.S. have been arrested for possessing narwhal tusks, which is a violation of the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.  While narwhal populations are somewhat stable, they are vulnerable to pressures from the illegal trade of their tusks, which can sell for $1,000 or more.
            The latest case this week involved a 58-year-old woman with Australian and Canadian citizenship who was living in Santa Fe, N.M., and who has had seven tusks in her home since 1981 that she knew were imported illegally.  She pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a year of probation.  News reports don’t mention it, but I assume (or hope) that the tusks were forfeited as well.
            Earlier in the month, an antiques dealer on the island of Nantucket in Massachusetts was sentenced to 33 months in federal prison for smuggling hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of narwhal tusks and sperm whale teeth into the U.S. from the Ukraine.  A co-conspirator was sentenced to nine months in prison after which he will be deported to the Ukraine, and a third party – a scrimshaw artist who purchased the whale teeth – will be sentenced in May.
            In Canada and Greenland it is legal for some native communities to hunt narwhals and sell their tusks, but restrictions are being tightened on the practice all the time.  In Qaanaaq, Greenland, where I visited last summer and observed a narwhal hunt, local hunters can kill up to 85 narwhals per year, and during most of the year they are restricted to hunting only from a kayak and using a hand-thrown harpoon.  However, the Greenland government established an export ban on narwhal tusks in 2004 because government scientists couldn’t confirm that narwhal hunting was not negatively affecting the narwhal population.  In December 2010, the Canadian government established a similar ban for the same reason for 17 hunting communities in the province of Nunavut.  That decision is being appealed.
            Regardless of whether or not the bans are repealed, it will continue to be illegal to bring narwhal tusks into the U.S.  As much as I would like to own a tusk and display it on my living room wall as a remarkable object of natural history, I also don’t want to be part of the reason that narwhal numbers decline in the future.  As biologist Kerry Finley told me, as soon as you start putting a price tag on wild animal parts – whether it’s meat, antlers, tusks, gall bladders, or any other part – you put animal populations in jeopardy.
While Finley supports subsistence hunting by native people in the North, he worries that hunting of narwhals exclusively for their tusks will have serious repercussions on the evolution of the species.  “Never in evolutionary history has so much powerful selection pressure been meted against that portion of the population that has survived to adulthood and carries the best genes for survival,” he told me in an email.  “Several recent studies have shown that such strong selection pressure has had a profound genetic effect by, for example, reducing the size of the main sexual attractant (e.g. size of bighorn sheep horns in the Canadian Rockies).  It also has profound effects on social organization and breeding success.”

So let’s all refrain from the buying and selling of narwhal tusks and simply enjoy knowing that this amazing animal is plying the Arctic waters in healthy numbers.  In the end, I’m sure we would all agree that a healthy narwhal population is more important than having another artifact on our mantle.

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