Sealer Aron Aqqaluk Kristiansen from the settlement Kangersuatsiaq in Greenland poses with the head of a rare, double-tusked narwhal.

Nikolaj Svendsen/AFP/Getty Images

Threats to Narwhals

Now that we've become acquainted with this arctic whale, you might be sad to know that, like many animals, it's under threat. Let's take a look at the culprits.

Inuit hunters are allowed to hunt a certain number of narwhals a year, in accordance with their traditions and culture. Some modern hunters use the traditional harpoon, but many hunters in the younger generations carry rifles. Often, hunters shoot a narwhal only to have it sink dead to the ocean floor or escape wounded. Some countries have rules against the import and sale of items like narwhal ivory, but many more nations are happy to encourage the trade. Inuit hunters can make a pretty penny off a narwhal tusk -- in August 2007, about $125 per foot [source: Nicklen]. Double tusks go for even more, sometimes several thousands of dollars. In an area where there aren't many jobs, this money is important.

But the narwhal isn't important just because of its tusk. Inuits dine on the top layer of skin and blubber, called muktuk or maktaaq, for vitamin C, a scarce commodity in those parts. Eating the marine mammals has become dangerous for the Inuit peoples, however -- levels of PCBs and mercury in animals around the ice cap have been found to be very high [source: Cone].

Inuits aren't the only hunters, of course -- orcas are more than happy to snap up a narwhal or two, and polar bears and walruses wouldn't mind a taste, either.

Another factor worrying scientists who study the whale is climate change. Because narwhals are so wedded to their pack ice environment, changes in sea ice have a huge impact on their migration patterns and survival. If the ice is too thick, narwhals can get trapped under it. And if they can't surface, the whales can't breathe. If the ice is too thin, predators may find it easier to hunt them, and the narwhals' fishy prey might move elsewhere. One scientist labeled the narwhal "the marine mammal least likely to survive melting ice floes" [source: NPR].

We don't even know how many narwhals there are in the world. Aerial surveys can only tell us so much. Not knowing how many narwhals there are makes it harder to figure out how many we have left and how many are disappearing. Environmentalists decry hunting quotas imposed by the government as too high. Even with the numbers we do have, the number of narwhals that are killed only to sink don't factor in. And by the time we figure out whether or not climate change is killing them, it might be too late to do anything but watch.

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