Trouble on Walrus Island

On Walrus Island in 1874 there were around five hundred bulls in residence. Since then they greatly diminished in numbers, and would eventually disappear entirely. Their skin is a mottled yellowish-brown, with very short, rouqh bristles scattered over it. It is wrinkled into folds all about the neck and shoulders. The animal’s posteriors are disproportionately small as compared with the anterior half of the body. The males exceed the females in size and reach a ton or more in weight. The tusks of the female are long and slender and are usually curved inward so that the points nearly touch. The tusks of the males are shorter and stouter, with the ends several inches apart. The largest pair of tusks I ever saw weighed 16 pounds.

To many of the Eskimo, especially on the Arctic shores, this animal is of almost vital importance, and upon Saint Lawrence Island, just south of Berinq Straits, over eight hundred Eskimo died in one winter [1879-80], owing to their missing the fall walrus hunt while on a prolonged carouse upon whisky obtained from a whaling ship. To these northern people this animal furnishes material for many uses. Its flesh is food for men and dogs; its oil is also used for food and for lighting and heating the houses. Its skin when tanned and oiled makes a durable cover for their large skin boats; its intestines make waterproof clothing, window-covers, and floats. Its tusks make lance or spear points or are carved into a great variety of useful and ornamental objects, and its bones are used to make heads for spears and other purposes.

The middle of August, 1881, we spoke to a walrus- hunter on the edge of the pack, off Cape Lisburne, and found that he was leaving the hunting ground, complaining that the pack-ice was so thin that when a walrus was shot the blood from the wound thawed the ice, and caused the edge to break, resulting in the loss of the game before its tusks could be cut out. The continual pursuit of these animals have suffered during the past few seasons has rapidly thinned them out and, owing to the restricted basin which they inhabit, it is only a matter of a few years when they will become comparatively rare where formerly abundant, and unknown in many of their former localities. Today it is safe to say that the number of these animals in existence is not over 50 per cent of the number living ten years ago, and a heavy annual decrease is still going on.

It is scarcely necessary to say that it is now illegal throughout Alaska to kill or to possess any walrus or any part or product, excepting under permit for scientific purposes, and excepting those killed by the natives for their own use, or by miners and explorers when actually in need of food.

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