Until the mid-20th century, narwhals and other sea mammals were the mainstay of Inuit existence. The tusked whales provided meat and blubber for food, oil for fuel, and raw material for everything from thread and tools to tent poles and sled runners. Hunters took the game they needed, and used all they took. But as more and more Inuit left the seminomadic life of their ancestors and settled in towns, narwhal ivory became a coveted source of cash. As the number of whales killed has increased, so have concerns about the species’ long-term health.
No one knows just how many narwhals live throughout the Arctic—estimates range from 40,000 to 70,000—but there is general agreement that the whale is not at risk of extinction. Even so, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, lists Monodon monoceros among the animals that could be threatened with extinction if trade in their parts is not monitored and controlled. The United States and Mexico ban imports of all marine mammal products, including narwhal ivory. But demand for the spiral tusks in other parts of the world continues to fuel the trade.
For centuries narwhal tusks were linked to the legend of the unicorn and believed to have medicinal, even magical, powers. At its peak during the Middle Ages, “unicorn horn” was worth ten times its weight in gold. Queen Elizabeth I reportedly received one valued at 10,000 pounds, a sum that in her day would buy a castle.
Today prices paid to hunters for narwhal tusks run about $125 a foot (0.3 meter). Don Oliver, manager of the Northern Store in Arctic Bay, bought 75,000 dollars’ worth of tusks from hunters in 2005, including a rare double tusk for which he paid $11,000. Oliver packs the ivory in a box and ships it to North Bay, Ontario, where it’s sold at auction to art dealers and collectors.
While scientific surveys seem to indicate that narwhals remain abundant overall, at least one stock is in serious decline, owing mainly to overhunting. Along Greenland’s west coast, narwhals plummeted from 10,500 in 1986 to 1,500 in 2002. Throughout those years Greenland’s Home Rule government imposed no limits on the number of narwhals hunters could take. Catch rates in Greenland during the 1990s averaged 750 narwhals a year.