Published: August 2007 Hunting Narwhals
Arctic Ivory
Prized by medieval royalty, inspiration for unicorn myths, narwhal tusks have driven men to extremes for centuries. Today the quest for tusks and skin threatens some populations.
Text and photographs by Paul Nicklen

The return of the narwhal, the tusked whale of northern polar seas, is a long-anticipated event in the Canadian Arctic. After months of darkness and temperatures as low as minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit, winter gives way to spring, and the sea ice covering Lancaster Sound begins to splinter. Open stretches of water, called leads, become travel lanes for the small whales as they follow the retreating sea ice toward their ancestral summering grounds around Baffin Island. In remote Inuit communities such as Pond Inlet and Arctic Bay, news of the narwhals’ arrival stirs hunters to reach for their rifles and head for the ice edge.

Like the Inuit, I too am eagerly awaiting the return of the tusked whales. For most of June, my guide and I have camped on the frozen surface of Admiralty Inlet, waiting out blizzards and moving our tents to escape the disintegrating sea ice. When finally we hear the squeaks, squeals, and blows of these vocal whales, we climb a large block of ice and cheer their arrival.

At first the narwhals parade past in pods of eight or ten, then in grand processions of hundreds. As news of their return spreads over the local field radio, Inuit hunters, many of them good friends I’ve known for years, begin arriving on snowmobiles carrying camping gear and high-powered rifles. Taking up positions along the ice edge, they watch and wait for narwhals to surface near enough to shoot with a rifle and retrieve with a grappling hook thrown by hand.

The Inuit have looked forward to this moment all winter. Each man waiting on the ice hopes to land a whale with a tusk that could sell for more than a thousand dollars, a windfall in a remote region where jobs are scarce and the cost of living high. The hunters also look forward to fresh muktuk, the top layer of blubber and skin, which is prized as a traditional delicacy.

But like most of life in the Arctic, hunting narwhals requires patience. The open water is wide here, and the whales stay beyond reach. So we light camp stoves, brew tea, and share stories and laughter. In the endless daylight of spring, our vigil continues around the clock. Cries of Tuugaalik! Tuugaalik!—Narwhal! Narwhal!—ring out as big males lift their tusks skyward. Then comes word over the radio that narwhals have been spotted moving up a newly formed lead 20 miles (32 kilometers) to the west. We quickly relocate and see that the crack in the ice is narrow. It’s a can’t-miss situation. Yet even at this close range, making a clean kill as the whales surface for air will be difficult.

The gunfire begins in the afternoon and goes on all through the twilit night. Over the span of 12 hours 109 rifle shots ring out, but something is wrong: In the morning only nine narwhals lie dead on the ice. Surely more were hit, I think, and begin asking each hunter how he fared.

“I hit two, but they didn’t die.”

“I sank seven and landed none.”

This was not the first time I had heard reports of many narwhals being shot but few landed. Just weeks earlier, a man I know to be a skillful hunter confided that he had killed 14 narwhals the previous year but managed to land only one.

For even the best hunters, killing and retrieving a narwhal at the ice edge is a formidable challenge, one that requires near-perfect aim and timing. The whale must be shot in the spine or brain (an organ the size of a cantaloupe) the instant it fills its lungs with air. Kill it at the wrong moment, and it will sink. Wound it, and it will swim away and possibly die later—though many narwhals apparently survive. I’ve seen more than a few bearing multiple bullet wounds.

Even whales killed with a perfect shot often float beyond reach of the hunter’s hook and sink. So much ivory rests on the seafloor, said one hunter, that a salvager could make a fortune.

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.

As the severity of the situation became apparent, scientific bodies sounded the alarm. A commission of marine mammal experts stated in a report, “New information seriously challenges our previous confidence that the hunting has been sustainable.” In 2004 the same group was adamant in its call for action: “West Greenland narwhal are heavily depleted, and substantial reductions in catch are required immediately to arrest the decline in numbers.” If the whales were to have any chance of recovery, the scientists stated, the annual kill would have to be slashed to no more than 135.

The Greenland government responded by setting a quota of 300 narwhals. Scientists and conservation groups complained that the limit was far too high. But rather than lowering the limit the government has increased it to 385, all but assuring that the stock will continue dwindling.

In Canada, concern centers on Admiralty Inlet. In 1984 the inlet’s summering population was estimated to be 15,000 strong. An aerial survey in 2003 counted just 5,000 narwhals. Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) notes that the survey missed large groups of whales, casting doubt on its accuracy. Even so, after reviewing all the available research, a select committee of scientists decided to bump the narwhal’s status in Canada from “not at risk” to “special concern.”

Running like a refrain through the committee’s report are laments about the absence of solid data to answer vital questions: How many narwhals summer in Canadian waters? How many distinct groups exist? What number do Inuit hunters kill each year?

In recent years the annual reported kill in the Canadian Arctic has averaged about 500 narwhals, but hundreds more may go unreported. No one knows how many are “struck and lost,” meaning shot but not landed. The number varies from year to year, depending on ice conditions and hunting methods. Researchers who observed hunts in the 1970s and early 1980s reported that in some cases, more than 70 percent of the whales killed or wounded were lost. More recent surveys indicate the average rate may be closer to 30 percent, but figures remain unreliable.

Sending outside observers to monitor hunts in remote communities has its limitations. Building trust takes time, and the DFO staff is stretched thin. During the month that I accompanied narwhal hunters on northern Baffin Island, a DFO biologist and a fisheries officer flew in and observed the hunt for only a few days. After they left, hunters remarked that they had been careful to take only sure shots when the monitors were watching, underscoring one of the weaknesses of such surveys.

Hoping to get a better handle on the hunt—and in the process turn over more regulatory functions to the self-governing Inuit—wildlife agencies and hunting groups in 1999 embarked on a cooperative program called community-based management. Inuit hunter and trapper associations were empowered to set their own rules and expected to monitor hunts and police their own ranks. The pilot program ends this fall, and the DFO plans to meet with the groups soon thereafter to assess its pros and cons and decide on a future course.

All agree that one of the most pressing needs is training young and inexperienced hunters to reduce the number of whales struck and lost. Killing a narwhal is a badge of honor for a young hunter, but many Inuit don’t grow up learning hunting skills. “With all the changes in Inuit society,” one official commented, “communication between the young and old is breaking down.”

This fact hit home as I 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.

Inuit culture has always been a hunting culture, but the coming of rifles changed the rules. Turning a blind eye to obvious abuses serves neither the Inuit nor the animals whose lives are intimately bound up with their own. As wildlife officials and hunters meet later this year, now seems an opportune moment for change. In the light of new realities, every hunter must rediscover the old wisdom of conserving game. Failure to do so denies their own proud heritage.