The narwhal played a key role in a centuries-old deception when its tusk masqueraded as the fabulous ‘healing’ horn of the unicorn. Now it faces a threat from a different kind of profiteering. PETER FROST investigates
You may want to be sitting down when you start reading this article. Don’t, whatever you do, let small and impressionable young children get their hands on it.
What I am about to tell you is sure to shock. Let’s get it over with. There are not now, nor have there ever been unicorns.
All right, I know you have read about them, heard poems about them even seen them in films but trust me, they don’t actually exist.
They never did, but that didn’t stop them becoming the most important and most frequently mentioned imaginary animal in history. Christian fundamentalists lean over backward to explain the five mentions of unicorns in the bible.
Long before Disney made billions of dollars from unicorn movies, books and stories, many others featured the legendary creature in their writings.
Both Aristotle and Pliny the Elder wrote about the unicorn. Claudius Aelianus declared that drinking from its horn protects against most diseases and poisons.
In the 12th century, abbess, proto-feminist and composer Hildegard of Bingen added medicine to her many skills and recommended unicorn ointment against leprosy.
All these amazing stories led to an enormous demand for unicorn horns and canny Arctic whalers filled the demand with horns from the male Narwhal.
The narwhal (Monodon monoceros), is a medium-sized, toothed whale. Males have a huge single tusk, which is in fact a protruding canine tooth.
Narwals live year-round in the Arctic around Greenland, Canada, and Russia. They are medium-sized whales. For both sexes, total body size can range from four to almost six metres (15-20ft). Males are slightly larger than the females. The average weight of an adult narwhal is 800 to 1,600 kilograms (1,800-3,500 pounds).
That tusk can add half as much again to a male narwhal’s overall body length. Many whaling museums — like the one in Hull — have examples of narwal tusks, often elaborately carved and engraved.
The narwhal is a uniquely specialised Arctic predator — in winter it feeds on flatfish under dense pack ice.
Males have been recorded diving up to 1,500m (4,900 ft) deep, with dives lasting up to 25 minutes.
They communicate with clicks and whistles and can live for up to 50 years.
However, narwhals face real threats and today’s population is down to a worrying low 75,000. Despite qualifying for International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) nearthreatened status they remain endangered.
They have been hunted for over a thousand years by Inuit people in northern Canada and Greenland for meat and ivory and a little licensed subsistence hunting continues. Sea mammals have long been staples of Inuit diet and culture.
The real threat to these unicorns of the sea comes not from Inuit but from a five-year oil exploration project in Baffin Bay and Davis Strait licensed by the Canadian government.
Nine out of 10 of the world’s population live off Canada’s Clyde River coast and that is exactly where the hunt for oil is beginning.
The process of oil exploration includes using deafeningly loud air cannons to map oil and gas deposits in the sea floor.
These cannons send sound waves that can permanently damage or even kill marine life including narwhals.
Community groups from Clyde River are fighting the prospecting in the courts and they have the support of organisations like Greenpeace.
The native people of Clyde River need all the support they can get to stop seismic testing and oil development in their territorial waters. They are standing up against the richest and most powerful and most environmentally destructive industry on this planet.
On top of that, they have to play tug-of-war with their own government, who puts private profit before people’s right to preserve their culture and lifestyle.
Unless the Inuit win this court case, seismic testing in Baffin Bay and Davis Strait will begin later this year. Then thousands of narwhals and other Arctic wildlife will perish and a millennium-long native culture will disappear in the speedy and greedy search for profits.
This article appeared in the Morning Star 24 July 2015