Environment : Hunting With Gun and Chain Saw: A New Threat to the Pacific Walrus : The kill is under way in the chilly waters shared by Siberian and Alaskan Eskimos. With elephant tusks now banned, poachers are looking for new sources of ivory.
When Sealskin Charlie was the biggest ivory dealer in Alaska, he made enough money to buy houses in Seattle, Anchorage and Hawaii, and he used to brag that he and a partner made $3.5 million a year from walruses and elephants.
Then Dave Hall and Walter Soroka arranged to buy a few hundred pounds of his goods. Representing a New Orleans ivory shop, they eventually offered to buy 100-pound lots of tusks from most major ivory dealers in Alaska--despite a new federal law to protect marine mammals.
Sealskin Charlie--actually Charles McAlpine--didn’t do the poaching himself, of course. He bought tusks from Alaskan natives who shot the big, slow beasts as they sprawled out on the ice to bask in the spring sun. Then the hunters chopped off their heads with chain saws or hand axes. The meat, worth nothing compared with the tusks, was left to rot.
On Feb. 4, 1981, Sealskin Charlie got an unwelcome shock.
While the ivory shop, called Endangered Species, was a legitimate tribal arts store, Hall and Soroka were undercover officers for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. And McAlpine had been drawn into the first major sting of the illegal walrus ivory trade.
But equally surprised were the two agents, and even long-suspicious environmentalists, when they confiscated a full five tons of ivory in the process. No one had realized how pervasive walrus poaching in Alaska had become.
For a few years, as a result of the federal enforcement, poaching became a less popular way to buy a new snowmobile.
But this summer, as the pack ice breaks up and the annual legal walrus hunt begins, environmentalists and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officers predict that some hunters may feel an irresistible temptation to return to rampant poaching. The walrus grounds in the Bering and Chukchi seas, where Soviet and American hunters share the kill, could be the scene of a slaughter, environmentalists warn.
“We try not to be alarmist, but we’re worried,” says Michael Sutton, a senior program officer with the World Wildlife Fund. “This summer will be the test.”
Environmentalists and some wildlife officers fear that the worldwide ban on elephant-ivory trade--in effect since January, under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES)--has forced ivory traders to look for new sources, notably the Pacific walrus herd shared by the Soviet Union and the United States. They also worry that the black market--particularly the sector in which ivory is traded for drugs--will also encourage more poaching.
Of the estimated 230,000 walruses in the Soviet-U.S. herd, from 10,000 to 12,000 walruses are killed each year, about half by each country. About 400 walruses are taken annually in a subsistence hunt in Canada’s small herd of 10,000.
Canada’s tiny Atlantic walrus herd has not been troubled by poachers, “though similar apprehensions have been expressed,” according to Robert R. Campbell, a senior policy and program adviser with the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
“We’re not really concerned about that (poaching),” says Soviet wildlife administrator Max Nemtsov, " . . . I think the Soviet measures are effective.” Nemtsov, in the Vladivostok office of TINRO, the Pacific Research Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography, expects no effect from the elephant-ivory ban on Soviet hunters. The walrus is considered an endangered species in the Soviet Union, he points out, and is protected by government observers in the isolated areas inhabited by the animals.
And there, “only a small (number of Eskimos) are really interested in walrus,” says Vyacheslav Sukhov of the Soviet Ministry of Fisheries, which has jurisdiction over walruses.
The Soviet walrus hunt is conducted and closely monitored by the government.
“They give you (just) so much ammunition, and you have to account for everything when you come back,” says one Eskimo who went on a Siberian hunt last year.
The problem is in Alaska, as the Soviets themselves have complained.
Poachers there slaughter more walruses than they need for food and native-style handicrafts, leaving the headless bodies behind. The Soviets have lodged diplomatic objections over the squandered carcasses that have washed up on Siberian shores.
Only “non-wasteful” subsistence hunting by Eskimos, Aleuts and Alaskan Indians--in which meat, hide and tusks are put to good use--is legally exempted by the U.S. Marine Mammals Protection Act.
Some conservationists are particularly worried about the Alaskan hunt this year because federal monitors in the six main U.S. hunting villages have been dropped from the Fish and Wildlife Service budget.
“The price of ivory is up, demand is up--we’ve certainly seen an increase in international demand--and the supply is small,” says Gary Mowad, special agent with Fish and Wildlife. ". . . You couple that with a lack of a monitor, and that could be an equation that could spell wholesale slaughter.”
Others are not yet so concerned.
“I think it’s too early to tell,” says Dana J. Seagars, the Fish and Wildlife biologist in charge of Alaskan walrus management. “I don’t think there will be a problem.”
Samuel LaBudde, who filmed hundreds of headless walrus carcasses on Alaskan beaches last fall, is far more apprehensive. Environmentalists and most law-enforcement agents insist that headless torsos are proof that these walruses were taken for their ivory only.
“Over the last few years you’ve had head-hunting,” says LaBudde, a biologist with the environmental group Friends of Animals. “Years ago, ivory was a secondary or tertiary part of the hunt. Now, it’s the fundamental reason for the hunt.
He said he knows of “documentation of 30 to 40 walrus heads coming back in a small boat, heads cut off by chain saws.”
Nemtsov, of TINRO, says headless torsos have washed up on the Soviet Kuril and Komandor islands. A recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife aerial survey of carcasses along Alaska’s western beaches showed that 415 of 418 walruses were missing heads.
Yet it is legal for anyone, native or not, to salvage ivory from a walrus dead of natural causes, without making use of the meat and hide. And that is where headless carcasses come from, says Benjamin P. Nageak, chairman of the Eskimo Walrus Commission, which represents hunters.
“Reports that the Eskimos are killing walrus just for their heads is just a crock,” says Nageak. “There are just a few that hunt heads, but not very many. . . .
“With a natural mortality of 4% to 6%,” says Nageak, “of course you’re going to have walruses up on the beach. And if people see a dead walrus, they aren’t going to leave it lying around, they’re going to use it.”
World Wildlife’s Sutton counters: “Natural mortality isn’t enough to explain that magnitude of carcasses on the beach.”
Meanwhile, the ivory markets could fuel a new round of poaching.
Alaskan native carvers report a shortage of walrus ivory for their own needs. But the shortage has yet to raise the price of $35 to $50 a pound on Anchorage’s legal market. Native Alaskans are allowed to sell raw ivory to each other, and to sell ivory to non-natives if it has been crafted in traditional ways--such as scrimshaw, or being carved into traditional animal statues. In fact, one trick used by traders trying to avoid the Marine Mammal Act is termed “Bic-pen scrimshaw,” for carving so limited and light that the marks can be easily sanded off--after it has been sold as legally handicrafted ivory.
Elsewhere, although Japan is complying with the world ban on elephant ivory, demand there remains strong, since ivory is popular for the personalized signature seals called hanko. Traders have informally asked some U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service enforcement officials whether hanko could be considered a traditional handicraft, or whether arrangements might be made to exempt raw walrus ivory for sale to Japanese carvers. Fish and Wildlife is almost certain to refuse.
Ivory from prehistoric mammoths is getting premium prices. The Soviet Union has a lot of it, and since mammoths are extinct, the ivory--some of it 10,000 years old or more--is legally traded in many countries. In Japan, the price of mammoth ivory has gone from $50 a kilogram to $2,000 a kilogram since the CITES ban, according to Urs Kreuter, a range scientist following the ivory trade.
The black market is harder to measure. And it’s complicated by a new appetite among some Alaskan natives for marijuana, cocaine and even heroin and LSD.
“The black market is trading as much in drugs--if not more--than in cash,” says Jim Sheridan, assistant special agent in charge of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Anchorage office. “We have a case where the whole head (with tusks) might have been worth $300 to $500, but it was going for six (marijuana) joints. . . . It’s nothing new, but they’d rather have the drugs than the money.”
By most accounts, poaching so far is practiced by few native hunters. But the long-term trend could be far grimmer.
Larry L. Hood, one of the Fish and Wildlife Service officers who worked on Sealskin Charlie’s sting, said last week, “From what I hear from the folks up there, they’re hammering the walrus again pretty hard.”
Where Great Beasts Meet Their Enemy
Although walruses are also being hunted in Canada, environmentalists are most concerned about this year’s activity in the Chukchi and Bering Seas between Siberia and Alaska. There, they fear, heavy poaching could turn a legal hunt into a slaughter.