Tuesday, June 3, 2008


A Big Game

Published: August 25, 2002

Forty-five miles from a shoreside camp, adrift on ice in Canada's northern Foxe Basin, two walrus bulls dozed as the boat drew near. The animal in front, perhaps 35 yards from the bow, reclined backward, exposing an ample belly and mismatched teeth -- one fine ivory tusk beside a cracked white stump. The second bull's tusks remained unseen, wedged beneath its bulk.

The big-game hunter raised a stainless-steel rifle and peered through its scope. He shifted the cross hairs from one bull to the other. In a lifetime of travel and trekking, the hunter, Pete Studwell, had killed 11 bears, 10 elk, 6 caribou, 3 moose, 2 musk oxen, 2 boars, a bison, a cougar and roughly 300 deer, part of a personal list of bagged animals that includes 45 categories of big game. He had never killed a walrus. Until a half-hour earlier, when the boat began threading through Arctic ice, he had never seen one in the wild.

The bulls awoke. The first animal rolled to its stomach. The second sat up, revealing sturdy and symmetrical tusks, the sort of ivory that once adorned only the most intrepid hunter's walls. Studwell stopped moving the cross hairs.

Standing to Studwell's left, Caleb Iqqaqsaq, an Inuit guide, watched his father, Cain, who worked the wheel in silence as the boat shrunk the range. ''Get ready,'' Caleb said. ''I will tell you when the time is.''

The bulls rocked and grunted, more curious than afraid. The boat passed inside 15 yards, just beyond the distance a man might spit. The old Inuk nodded. His son whispered into Studwell's ear: ''Shoot.''

For 4,500 years the Aboriginal people in the eastern Arctic region of Canada have killed walruses on the summer floes, providing meat, skins and oil to a society built on land so barren it is almost devoid of topsoil. It is one of the oldest surviving hunts on earth, and one that has endured -- through small quotas that allow killing for subsistence -- even as dwindling herds were protected from other hunters' guns. Then eight years ago, Cain Iqqaqsaq, along with the Igloolik Hunters and Trappers Organization, approached the government with a proposal. Why not set aside some quota and sell the right to kill a few animals to big-game hunters? Cain explained that the same number of animals would die but that more people would benefit from them. Local men would charge visitors to help them bag trophies and then keep the meat, using it as the Inuit always have. The government approved the request. Atlantic walruses, protected since 1928, became game animals again.

The hunt started slowly. Nunavut, a vast tableau of ice, tundra and sea that stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to central Canada, remains difficult to reach. But as word of walrus shooting spreads, more hunters are being lured north. Six signed on for the summer of 2000. Twenty-six have signed on in the past two summers, including Studwell, a broad-chested and thickly bearded man from Westchester County, N.Y., who hands out business cards that read ''Adventurer.''

Sport hunting is a pastime with all manner of subcultures. Walrus hunters are among the most extreme. Most come to Nunavut not just for high-latitude escapism but also for an obligatory stop in pursuit of a peculiar goal: to shoot one specimen of every mammal on lists promoted by big-game clubs and outfitters. There are many ways to catalog this chase. There are the Arctic Grand Slam (caribou, musk ox, polar bear and walrus) and the African Big Five (leopard, lion, elephant, rhino and cape buffalo), and there are global directories dozens of species long, prompting camp talk of ''collecting the cats,'' ''finishing the Plains'' or ''doing Africa.''

American list hunters typically seek every trophy mammal indigenous to their continent, which, depending on how they count them, range from a Classic 24 to a North American 32 and include various deer, caribou, elk, sheep, moose and bears as well as the Atlantic walrus, which until recently was unobtainable.

The revived walrus shoot ranks among the most bizarre hunts ever. Walrus remain protected in the United States, and it is illegal for American hunters to bring home any part of their kills. Instead, they store the skulls, ivory and enormous penis bones in Canada and talk of lobbying Congress to amend the Marine Mammal Protection Act to allow shipment of their curios south. The restrictions hardly deter. Each hunter pays $6,000 to $6,500 to kill a bull, which generally takes a day. It is an achievement that is not surprising, considering that walrus hunting, under Inuit supervision, is the approximate equivalent of a long boat ride to shoot a very large beanbag chair.

C.J. Chivers is a reporter for The New York Times.


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