Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Whales killed for tusks

In his May 7 Commentary piece (“Ivory ban would only hurt R.I.,” Providence Journal), scrimshaw collector Richard Donnelly argued against H-5660, a bill before the General Assembly that would ban the sale or trade of ivory in Rhode Island. While I have not read the bill and don’t know much about its implications, I know that Mr. Donnelly is misinformed on one important point.
He wrote: “With regard to marine mammals, documentary evidence proves that no whale was ever killed for its ivory at any time past or present -- not even one.” This statement could not be further from the truth.
The narwhal, an Arctic whale that I have studied for the last seven years, has an 8-foot spiral tusk of ivory that is prized by collectors around the world. The animals are killed by the hundreds every year, and have been for centuries. They are legally hunted by native Inuit in the eastern Canadian Arctic and Greenland, and the Canadian hunters target almost exclusively the whales with the largest tusks. They eat very little of the 3,500-pound animals they kill.
Although Mr. Donnelly is correct that the largest market for ivory is in the Far East, there is plenty of demand in our neck of the woods, even though the Marine Mammal Protection Act makes it illegal to import marine mammal parts into the United States.
An international narwhal tusk smuggling ring was broken up by police in Maine in 2013, and the culprits are now in prison after being convicted last year in both Canada and the United States. They modified a trailer to hide the tusks from customs officials on the Maine/New Brunswick border and smuggled more than $1.5 million worth of tusks into our country. The tusks were destined for collectors in Tennessee, New Jersey and elsewhere. In another recent case, a Massachusetts antiques dealer was sentenced to prison for trafficking in narwhal tusks.
Legal trade in narwhal tusks to Europe continues unabated, as it has since Arctic explorers brought the first narwhal tusks back to the continent in the 1500s, claiming them to be unicorn horns. When I was conducting narwhal research on Baffin Island, Canada, I visited an Inuit co-op where six narwhal tusks were for sale. All were priced at more than $600, and all were purchased the very next day when vacationers from a European cruise ship visited the village. In addition, I saw a narwhal tusk for sale in a Vancouver curio shop priced at $10,000, and when I asked whether it could be shipped to Rhode Island, the dealer told me “anything is possible.”
In 2010, the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans placed a ban on any export of narwhal tusks from Canada, citing concerns about the effect of climate change on narwhal populations and the officials’ inability to state that narwhal hunting would not have a detrimental effect on the health of narwhal populations. That ban was lifted in 2012, though the issue is still a concern to government biologists.
Given these concerns about how legal and illegal trade in narwhal tusks is affecting the population of the whales, and the fact that some of that trade is taking place not far from our borders, it seems worthwhile to carefully consider H-5660 before blindly taking the advice of those with a vested interest in selling ivory.

This article first appeared in the Providence Journal on May 20, 2015.