by Barry Kent MacKay,
Senior Program Associate
Born Free USA's Canadian Representative
Barry is an artist, both with words and with paint. He has been associated with our organization for nearly three decades and is our go-to guy for any wildlife question. He knows his animals — especially birds — and the issues that affect them. His blogs will give you just the tip of his wildlife-knowledge iceberg, so be sure to stay and delve deeper into his Canadian Project articles. If you like wildlife and reading, Barry's your man. (And we're happy to have him as part of our team, too!)
Even today, more than a week later as I type these words, the propane blast that rocked northwest Toronto early in the morning of Sunday, August 10, forcing a major evacuation and damaging much property, dominates the local news. It even made CNN News, briefly, although with only two deaths resulting from the explosion of a propane storage facility inexplicably located in a residential neighborhood, it faded fast.
Of greater international interest to CNN was a report, on Larry King Live, the previous Tuesday, linking extensive cell phone use to brain tumors. Half the world’s population owns a cell phone. Of course there was the usual gloomy news from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to which has been added a new one: Russia’s incursion into Georgia.
But what didn’t make the most of the world’s news was a single little tragic farce enacted outside the sphere of personal concerns for ourselves or our loved ones. It had all the elements of a front page story: an innocent individual slaughtered by invaders gleefully seeking to exercise their cultural rights.
The victim was an endangered species of arctic whale called the bowhead. According to what little media there were, Inuit living in the remote northern Quebec community of Kangirsujuaq celebrated a successful hunt that weekend. It was the first time in about a century that locals had done what their ancestors did more than a century ago: they had killed bowhead whale, an individual that weighed in at 40 tonnes. The community of 600 invited others to fly into Kangirsujuaq to help with butchering and consumption.
There’s certain irony in that: The carbon footprint of all that flying, something that couldn’t have happened in earlier centuries, will contribute its small bit to the overall increase in greenhouse gasses which, in turn, are contributing to global warming that, in turn, threatens the arctic ice that the endangered bowhead whale requires as part of its habitat. Bowheads are “ice” whales, the only baleen whales living their entire lives only in areas of the far north where there is sufficient year-round ice cover. Sure, they may have survived past climatic changes, but they did so with significantly larger populations that assured greater genetic variability.
Ironically, the bowhead has increased under protection, with the Canadian government estimating there are 14,400 in the eastern arctic. “Management” thinking is that one less hardly matters. Alaskan natives are also allowed “sustenance” hunting of bowheads, which, computer analysis show, does not have an impact on the recovery of the species.
One Quebec hunter said that many of his colleagues shouted with joy and shed tears, once the whale was killed. The hunt had lasted nine days.
Cultural needs have been served, the world outside that region took little note, and a rare, magnificent creature has been killed so humans might weep with joy. A fifty-ton bowhead killed by native hunters in May, last year, had the head of an explosive harpoon embedded in its neck blubber. The projectile had been manufactured around 1890, making the animal between 115 and 130 years old when humans again intervened, and this time finished the slaughter. Did the hunters weep with joy? I think there is cause to weep, but not for joy. We should weep for the whales, and for our own kind, and our murderous ways.