The Gradual Decline of the Pacific Walrus

The typical picture of the Pacific Walrus

The population of the Pacific Walrus has been declining for a number of years, and their plight was brought to the world’s attention in 2009 when 200 dead animals were found near Icy Cape on the north coast of Alaska. This was followed by groups of dead walruses being found at Point Lay with 64 being identified in September 2017.

The Pacific Walrus survives in the arctic seas of the Northern Hemisphere. With long whiskers, massive tusks and huge girth they are easily recognizable. Their population in the 19th century was around 200,000 but then they were commercially hunted. The Soviets used ships to hunt the animal and other nations such as the USA also followed suit, killing the Walrus for its meat, tusks and fir. It was estimated that in 1876 35,000 were killed and by the end of the century the population was down to 100,000.

With the low numbers the ships stopped hunting as it was no longer commercially viable to do so, and the numbers recovered to a level where the ships returned in the 1930s. Once again this resulted in the stocks being depleted and by the 1950s numbers were down to 100,000. Since then the boats have disappeared and now there are estimates that the numbers in the wild are around 200,000 again. However, the situation of today is made even more fragile by global warming destroying the Walrus’s natural habitat.

Disappearing ice resulting in large numbers of Walrus gathering on the shore

The walrus relies on the floating ice for giving birth, resting and taking care of its calves. Without the ice too, many congregate on the mainland. The 2009 incident where 200 died, came as a result of the animals stampeding and the trampling led to so many perishing. In September 2017 four native men from Alaska were sentenced to three years’ probation for illegally killing four Walrus just for their tusks. The indigenous population are allowed to hunt the animal for subsistence purposes but are not allowed to kill the animals just for the commercial benefit of their valuable tusks. The actions of these men caused many animals to stampede and this resulted in around two dozen perishing. The incident does highlight the delicate balance of Walrus farming in the region. While the indigenous groups are allowed to take the whole animal, they cannot just kill for specific parts.

Within the arctic areas carved ivory is on sale in many art and gift shops. However, the success of the sales is often affected by the tourist’s misconceptions about the legality of the purchase. In the USA and Europe, it would appear that it is legal for people to return home with small amounts of Walrus ivory, but many are confused by the import rules. The future of the Pacific Walrus is as delicately balanced as it has been for 200 years. In 2017 the USA’s Trump administration has caused controversy as it has refused to list the animal as an endangered species. The feeling is that it will be able to adapt any future climate changes that will affect its natural habitat. The ability of the animal to bounce back and repopulate after previous times of low numbers, may have been behind the Government’s decision. Whether it will be able to do so in the future when the environment may not be so being so favourable, is the questions that many conservationists will be asking in future years.