Alaska – Twenty-five Pacific Walruses were found decapitated in an Alaskan beach triggering federal investigation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the cause of death. It is believed to be linked to ivory trade.

It the walruses were in fact killed for ivory trade, it would represent a violation of 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act, according to which is illegal to hunt walrus solely for their ivory and not their meat. However it is impossible to tell for certain the cause of death until the bodies are taken to further analysis.

Thousands of walruses gather on the northwest coast of Alaska on Sept. 23. Pacific walrus looking for places to rest in the absence of sea ice are coming to shore in record numbers, according to NOAA. An estimated 35,000 total walruses were spotted Saturday about 5 miles north of Point Lay, Alaska. Credit: TheBluesAndTheNews

“We can’t say with any certainty what the cause of death here was. You know, these animals, from the photos, do appear to have their heads taken off, but we can’t make any assumptions that that’s why they were killed, if they were, in fact, killed […] You know, people can take the heads if they find a dead walrus on the beach.” Andrea Medeioros, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said in a statement to Alaska Public.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says they received an email about the walrus deaths last week. They were found just off of Cape Lisburne, not far from a small-manned Air Force radar site now serving as the basis for the federal wildlife agency’s investigation. There were 12 pups and 13 adults found dead on the beach, many of them headless—their tusks apparently harvested—and locals say some carcasses were found riddled with bullet holes. Walrus meat is often consumed as a good source of protein, but the mammal’s ivory is often used for jewelry and clothing. Some walrus’ oosiks (penis bones) were also harvested.

Walruses are preyed upon by polar bears, killer whales, and man. The magnitude of natural mortality is unknown but is assumed to be low, given the population’s low productivity. Eskimo hunters from St. Lawrence Island have described walruses becoming emaciated after becoming entrapped in heavy ice. It is probable that in some instances those walruses starve to death but no documentation of such events exists.

Climate Change

The fate of walrus has become a cause for concern as climate warming diminishes summer sea ice. Arctic sea ice hit its summer minimum this month at 1.7 million square miles, down 240,000 square miles from 2014, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center. It’s the fourth-lowest level on record for minimum summer sea ice.

Walrus breed in the Bering Sea. Many walrus found in the Chukchi Sea north of the Bering Strait are females with pups that use ice as a platform from which to dive and rest. As ice melts, walrus move north over new feeding areas.

Source: The Christian Science Monitor