Vanishing tribes . . . vanishing whales

Siberian hunters blast whales with anti-tank guns and Kalashnikovs. They have our blessing because they are `aboriginals' and it is their culture, Nicholas Schoon reports
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Siberian tribespeople have been using anti-tank weapons and Kalashnikov rifles to kill whales, Russia admitted this week.

Elsewhere in the Arctic, the Inuit people of Greenland use conventional fishing boats armed with state-of-the-art explosive harpoons. The fin and minke whalemeat they catch can be found on sale in a supermarket in the capital, Nuuk.

The reason these and other peoples of the far north are able to continue a slaughter the rest of the world repudiates is because it is deemed to be an essential part of ancient tribal culture. They are exempt from the International Whaling Commission's nine-year moratorium on commercial whaling.

But at next week's annual IWC meeting in Aberdeen this "aboriginal" or "subsistence" whaling - which kills hundreds of the mammals each year - will be the subject of heated debate.

What is really bringing matters to a head is the urgent wish of an American Indian tribe - the Makah of Washington state - to go back to whaling after ceasing 70 years ago. The United States government, a fierce opponent of commercial whaling, is applying to the commission for a quota of five grey whales a year for the Makah.

Only the tribal elders still have childhood memories of whaling, and the Makah will have to re-learn their lost skills. They are looking for help to the Inuit in Alaska, who never stopped whaling. Like the Inuit they may well use explosive harpoons. The tribe is invoking the 1855 treaty it signed with the US government which gave it ``the right of taking fish and of whaling or sealing at usual and accustomed grounds".

Several Makah are coming to Aberdeen to lobby IWC delegates from the 30 nations attending. Some US animal rights organisations are strongly opposed to granting them a quota.

A sub-committee of the IWC will consider the request and review all aboriginal whaling tomorrow before making a report to the full commission next week. The US delegation expects resistance from several countries and pressure groups.

The commission's scientific committee has been meeting this week, and its members were startled by the Russian data on last year's aboriginal whaling. Five remote villages in the most north-easterly corner of Siberia caught only 85 of their quota of 140 whales. But on average 500 bullets were shot at each from rapid-fire rifles, and two were shot with anti- tank rounds. ``That was certainly a surprise for us,'' said Dr Ray Gambell, the IWC's secretary. The British government said it had grave concerns and would be seeking further details.

Russia used to provide the impoverished Chukchi tribespeople with a whale- catching boat, but that ended after the collapse of Communism. They have had to find other ways of trying to catch their quota.

Outside the Arctic, there is only one legalised aboriginal whaler - Athnal Ollivierre on the Caribbean island of Bequia. Like generations of his family before him, Mr Ollivierre, who is in his 70s, continues to hunt humpback whales from a small boat using a non-explosive harpoon. His quota is just two a year, but this year he speared only one - and it got away.

Norway and Japan, which have found ways of legally defying the moratorium and catching hundreds of unendangered minke whales each year, increasingly resent the special, protected status of aboriginal whaling. They argue it is getting harder and harder to distinguish it from the kind of whaling they want to do.

But the tribespeople and their supporters say it needs its special status. Whaling dominates their threatened and often damaged cultures, strengthens social bonds and remains a vital food source.

Japan has repeatedly asked for a quota of 50 minkes for four villages with a tradition of coastal whaling, but the IWC has always rejected the request.

Norway says its whaling - which is coastal, and done part-time by fishermen, only in summer - is almost identical to what the Inuit in Greenland are allowed to do. They also insist it poses no threat to its healthy minke whale populations.

Greenpeace does not condemn aboriginal whaling, butGeorg Blichfeldt of the High North Alliance, representing whalers, sealers and fishermen across the Arctic, said the concept was outdated. ``The term is totally irrelevant - it's inverted racism. Everyone should have the right to whale so long as it's properly controlled and sustainable. You don't need to be a tribe with a special culture and special dances.''