A new study launched today by TRAFFIC and WWF finds that while there is no evidence that international trade is currently a threat to the conservation of narwhals, as climate change is likely to have a significant impact on narwhal populations, improved monitoring of trade levels is increasingly important.
Narwhals are toothed whales, found only in Arctic waters. Given their association with sea ice, climate change is likely to affect narwhals negatively as food becomes harder for them to locate and sea ice changes says the report, Breaking the ice: International Trade in Narwhals in the Context of a Changing Arctic.
Narwhal tusks, and items carved from them, are traded internationally. This trade is regulated under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). From 1987 to 2009 the study found a total of 4,923 narwhal tusks were traded, an average of 214 each year.
According to the study Breaking the Ice: International trade in Narwhals, in the context of a changing Arctic, (PDF, 5MB) these numbers should be considered an underestimate as they do not take into account those animals represented by ivory carvings, nor have all products exported as personal effects necessarily been included.
The study calls for improved measures to document and monitor international trade in narwhals, including:
• more consistent reporting of CITES trade data
• more precise reporting of the narwhal body parts in trade
• reporting of items exported as personal and household effects (souvenirs)
• developing a study on the supply chain and consumer demand dynamics for narwhal parts.
Currently Canadian Inuit and Greenlandic hunters are permitted to hunt narwhals for subsistence purposes. On average, 979 narwhals were landed each year from 2007 to 2011, less than one percent of the estimated global population. For many Arctic communities, these activities satisfy cultural and nutritional needs and also contribute to the financial needs of households.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the most recent global population estimate for narwhals is in excess of 100,000 animals. The species is assessed as “Near Threatened”.