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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Field Note: Walrus Changes His Mind

Published: October 5, 2018


By Mark Seth Lender


A walrus eyes his observer suspiciously. (Photo: Mark Seth Lender)

Living on Earth's Explorer-in-Residence Mark Seth Lender reflects on the risks of photographing an imposing -- and approaching -- walrus in Svalbard, Norway.

When the bull turned and came towards me I remained perfectly still. I relaxed (or rather, relaxed as much as I could manage), assuming he would perceive an absence of threat. A reasonable bet because I knew he would have no memory of being hunted. The only reason there are Atlantic walrus in Svalbard is that they are protected throughout the archipelago and have been since 1952.

Despite which I was preparing to run and trying to decide if I would risk taking the time to lay down the camera and tripod, or not! The great risk in such circumstances, other than a miscalculation (his, or mine) is a previous negative encounter. Maybe the walrus had been harassed. Maybe someone threw a stone at him. Or panicked and fired a bear banger in his direction. Because walrus remember. They form judgments (why wouldn’t they?).

And you do not want to be judged in the negative by a walrus.

I would never have come as close as this in Hudson Strait. The only walrus I ever saw there, in six years of searching, was on Diggs Island. It was a young walrus, probably not old enough to breed. An Inuk hunter had chain sawed off his tusks. And left the rest of him to rot. “Traditional Hunting” or as it is often called now, “Harvesting,” comes down to exactly this. Killing. With modern weapons. No quota. And for money.

Link: Hear and read the essay, "Walrus Changes His Mind"

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