War against ivory trade takes to the sea

Auction house agrees to stop sale of whale tusks after pressure from campaigners

A A A

It's the "other" ivory. And this week, conservationists in London stepped in to stop its sale. It might not be as well known as the stuff that comes from elephants, but the ivory from the narwhal, the tusked whale of the northern seas, is just as much in demand – and with that demand comes a threat just as severe as the one elephants face.

Not only is the narwhal's single spear-like tusk (which can be 8ft long) an object of great beauty, it is the object of myth and legend – in the Middle Ages it was considered to come from the unicorn – and so is highly prized by collectors. The demand for tusks is increasing and, as a result, so is hunting in the narwhal's core area of northern Canada and Greenland.

Campaigners from the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) believe the rising hunting rate is a threat to the animal and so when seven narwhal tusks were entered into a major antiques sale at Bonhams, the London auction house, this week – where they were expected to fetch up to £10,000 each – they pressed for them to be withdrawn. The company agreed to do so; now the campaigners are calling on Bonhams to exclude narwhal tusks permanently, although the auction house confined itself to saying the tusks were withdrawn from the sale "for procedural reasons" and gave no indication about future policy.

"We welcome Bonhams' decision to remove the narwhal tusks from sale, and we hope that the company will extend this decision to future sales both at its UK auction houses and overseas salerooms," said Chris Butler-Stroud, the WDCS chief executive.

The tusks were entered in The Gentleman's Library Sale, an annual auction bringing together natural history curiosities of the sort that might have adorned the library or the smoking room of a wealthy Victorian; when it took place on Wednesday, the full sale of more than 1,000 items – featuring items from antique globes to antlered deer heads – raised nearly £900,000.

WDCS believes that the seven tusks originally listed for auction would have represented the largest single offering of narwhal ivory in the UK since the European Union banned its import from Canada in 1984 and limited imports from Greenland to personal effects only (ie, not for resale) in 2004.

Although elephant ivory is banned from general sale, apart from in specially licensed auctions – one such took place last year – the sale of narwhal ivory is still legal, although the trade has to be monitored. But the WDCS believes that demand is steadily growing, with prices rising accordingly, and that this is pushing native peoples in artic Canada and Greenland to hunt more and more of the animals.

One of the main narwhal populations in Greenland has been listed as critically endangered on Greenland's Red List of Species, and in 2008, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, cited over-hunting as the major threat and warned that the species as a whole could become "endangered" or "critically endangered" within five years.

The society has also contacted Bonhams' US branch, Bonhams and Butterfields, with its concerns, as it has sold at least four narwhal tusks at its Los Angeles salesroom in the past two years, for prices ranging from $11,000 (£8,000) to $20,400 for a single tusk.

"The publicity surrounding sales such as these, and the high prices fetched by the tusks, adds to the motivation for hunters to take as many narwhals as possible, and for management agencies to set quotas way above sustainable levels," Mr Butler-Stroud said.

Kate O'Connell, a WDCS researcher in the United States, said: "I think most people would find it abhorrent that such a trade should impact on such a beautiful animal."

Narwhals: The facts

The narwhal ( Monodon monoceros) is a toothed whale closely related to the all-white beluga. Its single tusk is an elongated incisor tooth that in fully-grown males ranges from 7ft to 10ft long. An exclusively arctic species, it is hunted only in Canada and Greenland, where between 300 and 500 animals are taken annually by native people. However, last November, hundreds of narwhals were trapped in the ice on the northern coast of Baffin Island, perhaps because the ice-formation regime in the arctic is being altered by climate change. Eventually all 629 were killed by Inuit hunters.

Suggested Topics
Life and Style
love + sex A new study has revealed the average size - but does that leave men outside the 'normal' range being thought of as 'abnormal'?
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Voices
The Palace of Westminster is falling down, according to John Bercow
voices..says Matthew Norman
Sport
Steve Bruce and Gus Poyet clash
football
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jake and Dinos Chapman were motivated by revenge to make 'Bring me the Head of Franco Toselli! '
arts + ents Shapero Modern Gallery to show explicit Chapman Brothers film
Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain performing for 'MTV Unplugged' in New York, shortly before his death
music Brett Morgen's 'Cobain: Montage of Heck' debunks many of the myths
Life and Style
life
Sport
Brendan Rodgers
football The Liverpool manager will be the first option after Pep Guardiola
News
Amazon misled consumers about subscription fees, the ASA has ruled
news
Arts and Entertainment
Myanna Buring, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Russell Tovey in 'Banished'
TV Jimmy McGovern tackles 18th-century crime and punishment
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Whitehouse as Herbert
arts + ents
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company has won the award ...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree are a global FTSE 250 business...

SThree: Trainee Recuitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree are a global FTSE 250 business...

Recruitment Genius: Lettings and Sales Negotiator - OTE £46,000

£16000 - £46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn