The Unicorn of the Arctic: Narwhal Tusks are Worth Thousands

A major narwhal tusk smuggling ring was just busted in Maine.

narwhal tusk
Narwhal tusks are coveted, but these unicorns of the sea are notoriously difficult to catch because they're smaller and faster than other whale species and can't be easily herded. (Photo: Paul Nicklen/Getty Images)
A Bay Area native, Andri Antoniades has previously worked as a fashion industry journalist and a medical writer.

Though we’re far from making good on our promise to save the whales, this latest victory stands as a rare bright spot in the war against poaching them. Federal agents say a major smuggling ring was just busted in Maine, putting a halt to its ten-year-long reign of illegal animal poaching.

The New York Times reports that two Americans and two Canadians were charged this week in a 29-count indictment that exposes a long-running whale tusk ring out of Canada. Over the course of a decade, federal agents allege about 150 narwhal tusks were illegally smuggled into the U.S., most recently in the false bottoms of shipping containers (apparently a favorite shipping method among poachers). Some of these narwhal tusks can fetch as much as $30,000 per piece.

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Narwhal whales are elusive Arctic Sea-dwellers who are mythologized as somehwat magical creatures for the single center ivory tusk that extends out of what is essentially their upper lip. And just like the fabled unicorn, the narwhal tusk is uniquely straight instead of curved, and it forms a twisting pattern that makes it especially ornate.

As with other poached animal parts, like the rhino horn or shark fin, the narwhal tusk was believed at least at one point to possess supernatural healing powers. At present day, it seems to be prized for its unique and decorative qualities.

According to the Associated Press, the narwhal is listed as “near-threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, and the import of its tusk is illegal in the United States. Capable of surviving only in the densely packed ice of the Arctic, these particular whales are already facing an imminent threat from global warming.

However, in Canada and Greenland, hunters are permitted to kill about 400 narwhals in total per year; that allowance is for the Inuit, who have for centuries depended upon their meat for sustenance.

Aside from the obvious immorality of killing an animal for decoration, the death of a narwhal whale is especially cruel because it takes such a herculean amount of effort to capture it.

Smithsonian Magazine reports that the whales are small, exceptionally fast, and incapable of being herded like beluga whales. Instead, they flee, quickly, from the sounds of boats and helicopters, so anyone hunting them is in for quite a fight to catch a single one. The fact that over the years, in just this particular case, 150 were caught, killed and de-tusked, says nothing good about the lengths poachers will go to in order to secure their prize.

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Still, it’s an all-too-rare event that those involved in the purchase of known poached parts are caught. Shipments of narwhal tusks have recently been discovered with some regularity, but the global market for poached parts is so vast, that for every instance uncovered, countless more are committed without consequence.

If convicted, the plaintiffs in this case could face up to half a million dollars in fines and up to 20 years in jail. The New York Times reports that a previous illegal narwhal dealer, David L. Place, was convicted in 2009 of illegally importing up to $400,000 worth of narwhal tusks and sperm whale teeth, and was sentenced to 33 months in prison.

Until we as a species stop viewing wildlife as things to be bought and sold instead of creatures to be protected, the global poaching market will carry on unabated.

How would you like to see the narwhal poachers punished? Let us know in the Comments.

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