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.
Regardless of whether or not the bans are repealed, it will continue to be illegal to bring narwhal tusks into the U.S. As much as I would like to own a tusk and display it on my living room wall as a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.”