Where Arctic Unicorns Are Hunted and Beloved

Where Arctic Unicorns Are Hunted and Beloved

Why you should care

Because narwhals are prized for more than just their good looks. 

Pet Love: A global look at cozy relationships between people and animals.

Unicorns exist! And you heard it at OZY first. But unlike what your lying 5-year-old niece may have told you, they’re not sparkly and pink, and they don’t live on rainbows. Real unicorns live in the sea, in the freezing-cold waters of the high Arctic. And, unfortunately for narwhals — that’s their official name — people there like them just as much as every kindergarten girl.

Narwhal hunting is a cornerstone of Inughuit culture in northern Greenland.

Narwhals have been hunted since “time immemorial,” says Igor Krupnik, an anthropologist and curator of the Arctic Studies Center at the Smithsonian Institution. During the Middle Ages, their tusks were traded, perhaps first by Vikings, around the world and are indeed one source of the unicorn myth. Today, narwhal hunting is practiced in its original form in remote areas of northern Greenland by around 800 Inughuit, one of a few groups of Greendlandic Inuits, who use handmade kayaks and harpoons to land the elusive deep-diving creatures. They wrangle narwhals ashore from cracks in sea ice — a massive undertaking, considering they can weigh in at more than a ton.

Narwhals hold “enormous spiritual significance” for Inughuits, and the legend of the narwhal is one of their most important stories, says Dr. Martin Nweeia, a dentist who studies narwhals in Greenland. Narwhals provide a vital source of vitamin C and are valued for their skin, meat, organs and blubber, which is used for both oil and dog food. Their tusks are sold to tourists, too, sometimes for thousands of dollars, but an export ban prevents any tusks from leaving Greenland.

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A sealer with the head of a narwhal, which has an unusual two tusks.

Source Nikolaj Svendsen/Getty

Even still, some people argue the tusk trade in other parts of the Arctic, like Canada, is bad for the whales. And as with any tradition, hunting methods in some areas have shifted with the times; today, many hunters use dogsleds or snowmobiles to get to the sea creatures and then shoot them with rifles. It’s a hot-button issue, but unlike elephants or rhinos, narwhals aren’t endangered. In fact, their population is thriving, say experts, with around 80,000 of them worldwide. Not to mention subsistence hunting of narwhals is “well-managed” and includes quotas, which means it is “currently sustainable,” says Kristin Laidre, a narwhal specialist and principal scientist at the Polar Science Center at the University of Washington.

One thing narwhals do have to worry about is climate change. Narwhals have a serious thing for sea ice. And warming sea temperatures mean melting ice and the loss of key narwhal breeding grounds. So if the thought of losing cuddly Arctic animals like polar bears isn’t enough for you to think twice about gas guzzling, maybe saving real-life sea unicorns is.

As for that unicorn horn, it’s a tusk formed from a single twisted tooth, and it can grow up to 10 feet long. Your niece is still a liar, but the truth is pretty cool.

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