National Geographic : 2007 Aug
reductions in catch are required immediately to arrest the decline in numbers." If the whales were to have any chance of recovery, the scien tists stated, the annual kill would have to be slashed to no more than 135. The Greenland government responded by set ting a quota of 300 narwhals. Scientists and con servation 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 commit tee'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 nar whals, 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 sur veys 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 126 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * AUGUST 2007 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 care ful to take only sure shots when the monitors were watching, underscoring one of the weak nesses 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 so ciety," 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. Turn ing a blind eye to obvious abuses serves neither the Inuit nor the animals whose lives are inti mately 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. t Close Call How did Paul Nicklen react when his plane's engine died? Find out at ngm.com/0708.