Tourists suspected after narwhal tusk goes missing in Svalbard, Norway

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Narwhals pictured above in the Canadian Arctic. Their tusks can sell for several thousand dollars.  (Kristin Laidre/NOAA/AP)
Narwhals pictured above in the Canadian Arctic. Their tusks can sell for several thousand dollars. (Kristin Laidre/NOAA/AP)
A narwhal tusk has been stolen from Svalbard, a popular, protected Arctic tourist destination. The governor’s office has asked for the help of expedition cruise ship visitors in identifying the culprit.

“Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints,” is the motto of Norwegian cruise company Hurtigruten on their trips to Svalbard, but despite serious government penalties and mandatory educational briefings for visitors, not all tourists are getting the message.

Sometime between late July and early August, a valuable narwhal tusk was illegally removed from a skeleton on the protected High Arctic archipelago. The culprit and the company he or she was traveling with are still unknown, but the Svalbard governor is seeking tips from tour operators and their guests.

“We only know that the tusk was there, then it was taken away,” says Governor’s office lieutenant Arild Lyssand, who is leading the investigation. “It has happened before, but it is not common.”

Enforcing the law

This past summer, 35 expedition cruise ships and about 50 private yachts visited Svalbard, meaning the potential list of suspects is thousands of names long. And without the resources to police every beach along the long coast of Svalbard, the governor’s office is left with little power to enforce the strict laws protecting the islands’ natural state against unscrupulous visitors.

“You have to trust them that they are behaving themselves,” says Lyssand. Usually, this policy appears effective, given the number of potential violators of the law versus the number of abuses that actually occur. Some lesser disturbances have been noted, however.

“We have seen in some situations that they go too close to wildlife, whether it’s walrus or polar bear,” says Lyssand. “Luckily we haven’t had any poaching, of polar bears for example.”

Killing a polar bear in Svalbard in any situation except when absolutely necessary for self-defense can land a person in jail for two to three years. Lyssand would not speculate on the likely penalty for removing the narwhal tusk.

Tusk’s value

In the early days of whaling, the existence of narwhals was hidden from the world in order to inflate the value of their tusks: in reality an erupted, elongated tooth, the tusks were claimed to be unicorn horns and given as gifts fit for kings and queens. Today, however, the value remains high and a booming market in China for animal parts is inflating the value once again. A website selling tusks is mostly sold out, announcing on each, “SALE PENDING TO CHINA”.

Given its small size at 3 feet long, the tusk that was stolen from Svalbard could be worth around NOK 12,500 ($2,200 US). But larger tusks sell for more than five times as much on the open market.

Narwhal tusks aren’t the only protected items the governor’s office must worry about. Polar bear parts and walrus tusks are among the other trophies that tourists sometimes try to bring home. But Lyssand insists that these parts must remain in place where they can degrade naturally.

“These subjects, they belong to Svalbard Environmental Fund. It is the owner of the subject, and also the nature should just go as it is without interruption from people,” he says.

The narwhal skeleton had been promised to the Svalbard Museum, which does not have a specimen to display to the public.

“We think it is a pity that someone took it and they have it in their private collection,” says conservator Sander Solnes. “It’s a rare animal to find, this tooth is very rare, and it would have been very nice to have a complete skull with a tooth.”

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Dene elder refuses to pay fine for caribou hunt, CBC News

Finland: Nature tourism in North Finland drawing Chinese tourists, Yle News

Greenland: The environmental and social impacts of Arctic tourism (Feature Interview) , Eye on the Arctic

Iceland:  Rejected by Iceland, billionaire sets sights on Arctic Finland for tourism project, Yle News

Russia: Creating links across the Arctic – A look back on the Beringia Arctic Games, Eye on the Arctic

Sweden: Is space tourism coming to Sweden’s Arctic?, Radio Sweden

United States: Warming may hurt and help tourism in Southeast Alaska, Alaska Dispatch

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