All over the web today, there’s the theme of: “dead walrus = caused by climate change”. On the Climate Progress blog they have this picture of the dead walruses (seen at left) which have been circulated by the Associated Press. I found the source photo on the Alaskan Daily News (ADN) here.
While uncredited on Climate Progress, the photo appears to have been taken from an airplane or helicopter by Tony Fischbach of the U.S. Geological Survey and distributed via The Associated Press.
In the ADN news article two things stand out:
1- The USFWS official quoted in the article, says that he doesn’t know the cause of the deaths:
“It’s just too early to say until we can get someone on the ground,” Woods said.
They report the dead walruses appeared to be mostly new calves or yearlings. However, neither the age of the dead walruses nor the cause of death is known, said Bruce Woods, spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
2- The AP reporter, Dan Joling, gives a platform to somebody who also isn’t on the ground, or even Alaska but works in San Francisco, who assigns climate change as the blame:
Shaye Wolf, spokeswoman for the Center for Biological Diversity, said the walrus deaths were alarming.
“It provides another indicator that climate change is taking a brutal toll on the Arctic,” she said.
This isn’t the first time AP writer Jolin has had a story angle downplayed by Brice Woods. The other poster child for Arctic climate change, the polar bear was part of a 2006 AP story where woods also downplayed the significance.
Before I say anything further, let me point out that I’m no expert on Alaskan wildlife. That being said, neither is Joe Romm and many of the other bloggers who repeated the AP story. So, I’m no more qualified to comment than any of them are. But since they’ve advanced a theory, I wish to do so also. I want to draw your attention to something curious in the Fischbach photograph that many websites used, but made no commentary on outside of the “dead walrus = caused by climate change” script.
Expand the photo above. Note that every walrus has what appears to be blood on it. I counted seven in the photo, each having a one or more red spots that seem to be bloody in origin. I can’t tell if the heads and tusks are on them carcasses either. Maybe somebody who knows what a dead beach walrus is supposed to look like can tell better? Hold onto that thought for a bit.
One of the theories from the “dead walrus = caused by climate change” theme is “Retreating sea ice might have taken away some of the platforms walrus use to hunt and rest, pushing to walrus to shore.”
Here’s a summary on the walrus from the University of Michigan:
Walruses prefer to inhabit areas with ice floes in the shallower regions near the coasts of Arctic waterways. Their seasonal migration patterns coincide with the changes in the ice. In the winter, walruses move south as the Arctic ice expands, and in the summer they retreat north as the ice recedes. This migration can cover distances of 3000 km. Individuals concentrate where the ice is relatively thin and dispersed in the winter. In the summer time, bulls may use isolated coastal beaches and rocky islets. Cows and young prefer to stay on ice floes in all seasons (Nowak 1991, Parker 1990).
And so says the theory, because they were pushed to shore, they were trampled by a stampede. No other cause is considered in this recent blast of news stories.
A stampede can be triggered by a polar bear, a plane or other perceived threat to the herd. That’s certainly possible. It has happened before according to this report from the Seattle Times in 2007:
Walruses are vulnerable to stampedes when they gather in such large numbers. The appearance of a polar bear, a hunter or a low-flying airplane can send them rushing to the water.
Sure enough, scientists received reports of hundreds and hundreds of walruses dead of internal injuries suffered in stampedes. Many of the youngest and weakest animals, mostly calves born in the spring, were crushed.
Biologist Anatoly Kochnev of Russia’s Pacific Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography estimated 3,000 to 4,000 walruses out of population of perhaps 200,000 died, or two or three times the usual number on shoreline haulouts.
He said the animals only started appearing on shore for extended periods in the late 1990s, after the sea ice receded.
“The reason is the global warming,” Kochnev said.
Here’s the article photo that shows a trampled walrus:
This photo provided by Pacific Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography shows a dead walrus, foreground, after a stampede on Cape Vankarem, Russia in March, 2007.
Here’s another photo and story from the same time period, from Physorg.com
Headless Walruses Alarm Alaska Officials
August 16th, 2007 By MARY PEMBERTON, Associated Press Writer
A dead walrus without its ivory tusks lay washed up on a beach of Norton sound off the coast of Nome, Alaska on Wednesday Aug. 15, 2007. The larger than normal number of walrus carcasses washing up on the beaches of Norton Sound has prompted an investigation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. (AP Photo/Diana Haecker)
(AP) — An unusually high number of walrus carcasses missing their heads and ivory tusks have washed up on beaches this summer, alarming wildlife officials.
No mention of “global warming” in that story. It also didn’t get much coverage. Old news, poachers at work, move along nothing to see here.
But it brings up an interesting question. In the Fischbach photo above that prompted the latest round of “dead walrus = caused by climate change” stories, we have seven of seven carcasses apparently with blood on them. Many of them appear to have blood only at one end. In the 2007 Kochnev dead walrus photo above, attributed to trampling, we don’t see any blood as would be expected by a trampling, which usually causes death by internal injuries and traumatic asphyxiation.
In the paper on traumatic asphyxiation, they don’t attribute much to blunt force injuries, and there’s no mention of blood. True, its about humans, but humans are mammals with lungs also and I can’t find any papers on walrus tramplings. I’d venture it to be undocumented.
I suppose it is possible that some blood might be seen in a mass trampling of walrii, but in seven out of seven carcasses?
Another possible explanation that fits the blood evidence in the Fischbach photo might be illegal poaching for tusks. With the walrus on the beach and within easy reach of anyone with a rifle, they’d make easy targets, but that seems to not to be in the realm of possibilities for our current news writers and bloggers.
Here’s an article that talks about the walrus in depth and notes the poaching issue:
Although both the United States and Russia have prohibited hunting except by native peoples, some conservationists contend that this “subsistence” hunting is now primarily commercial. Poaching has increased since an international moratorium on international trade of elephant ivory was enacted (walrus ivory is a good substitute for many purposes). Between poaching and the legal killing of 10,000-15,000 walruses in the eastern and western Arctic each year, the population of all walruses is likely to decrease greatly.
Now again I’m no expert on Alaskan wildlife but in the current news context, why isn’t anyone mentioning the poaching issue at all?
The International Whaling Ban was put into effect in 1986. This too put a big crimp on the illicit world market for ivory, driving the price up.
Since then there’s been quite a bit of walrus poaching for ivory.
In 1992, the CBS Evening News did a report on Walrus poaching:
(Studio: Dan Rather) Report introduced.
(Washington: Rita Braver) Walrus poaching ring in Alaska featured; excerpt shown of poaching videotaped by undercover United States Fish and Wildlife agent. [Fish and Wildlife Service director, John TURNER - talks about illegal ivory trading.] Details given, videotape excerpt shown of bogus trading post sting operation by United States Fish and Wildlife agents. [Special agent Adam O'HARA - comments on poachers.]
Here’s a prosecution in the news in 2004:
Men accused of shooting animals to sell tusks – without using the rest of them
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FAIRBANKS – Five Gambell men are accused of poaching walruses in the Bering Sea to sell the tusks. http://www.juneauempire.com/stories/080804/sta_poaching.shtml
An here’s a recent investigative report that has been turned into a book. “Animal Investigators: How the World’s First Wildlife Forensics Lab Is Solving Crimes and Saving Endangered Species”
At a recent meeting, leaders of the Alaska Native walrus hunting community had urged him to investigate illegal walrus hunting. While most Alaskan Natives scorned “headhunting,” —killing a walrus simply for its ivory tusks—Crane could see numerous examples from the seat of his plane. Local residents typically blamed the Russian villages on the other side of the Bering Strait. They claimed time and waves brought the dead animals to Alaska and that local Inuit hunters took the tusks – the only part that could be salvaged from the decomposing bodies.
Had the animals died naturally and then had their heads cut off? Or had they been killed for their tusks? Did Russian bullets kill the animals? Had Alaskans? The situation had been going on for years, and it was time to put an end to it. Crane needed definitive answers.
Normally, Crane would have sent the items to the lab for analysis. This time, the sheer size and number of the bodies forced a different approach. A team of forensic scientists, composed of FWS Lab Director Ken Goddard, Deputy Director Edgard (Ed) Espinoza, and veterinary medical examiner Richard (Dick) Stroud, would go to the scene.
Like the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Animal Investigators spotted dead walrus from the air. Then they went onto the beach to give the full CSI treatment.
But what if Animal Investigators had simply shrugged their shoulders and said “eh, global warming”?
We know the Arctic has had warm spells before, such as occurred in 1922.
The walrus apparently did OK then, as it has through millenia before man. Why all of the sudden then is the main cause of walrus deaths attributed to “global warming”. Is it reporting bias, like we’ve seen with extreme weather events now viewed by satellite and Doppler radar that would have gone unnoticed in the past? Given that we now have broad eyes and ears in the Arctic, are we simply more attuned than 100 years ago? Id say that is a factor.
Bu also, why when given a news photo showing seven apparently bloody walrus carcasses has nobody raised the possibility of poaching?
Nobody, including me, wants to see our Alaskan wildlife die or be killed through greed, stupidity, or carelessness. But before we go slapping on that catch all label of “global warming did it”, even before the primary wildlife investigators of this weeks event get a chance to get on the ground and determine the cause, we owe it to the animals and to ourselves to look at all the possibilities and to wait to determine the true cause before we go laying blame.
Otherwise, walrus poaching might just get a free pass under the guise of “global warming did it”.