State, federal agencies sell salvaged walrus tusks

Posted: Sunday, October 28, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Alaska ivory carvers found bargains at a government clearance sale Friday.

Three agencies sold an estimated 500 pounds of salvaged walrus tusks to Alaska Natives eager to turn the ivory into artwork, carvings and jewelry.

''I'm going to use it in my art. I'm a sculptor,'' said Gertrude Svarny of Unalaska, who showed up an hour early to be first in line.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the Eskimo Walrus Commission cosponsored the ivory sale. Most tusks were found on walrus carcasses washed up on beaches along the Bering Sea, the Chukchi Sea or the Arctic Ocean.

Buyers were let in two-by-two to pick out up to two tusks. Once everyone had made their first purchases, buyers could come back for more.

The sale was timed to coincide with the Alaska Federation of Natives convention. About 3,000 Eskimos, Indians and Aleuts are attending Alaska's largest annual gathering of indigenous people.

Under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act, walruses are protected from hunting except by Alaska Natives who live on the coast of the north Pacific Ocean or the Arctic Ocean. They may harvest walrus, sea otters or polar bears for subsistence purposes or the creation and sale of Native crafts.

Earnings from the government sale will be deposited into the Walrus Conservation Fund for research and education grants.

The agencies sold ivory by the pound. Carl Kava, director of the Eskimo Walrus Commission, said he and several commissioners graded the tusks. The newest, freshest tusks sold for $35 per pound. Others sold for $30 per pound. One table offered broken pieces of weathered ivory.

''The stuff you really can't work too well is $20 per pound,'' he said.

Male walruses reach 2,000 pounds and females 1,500 pounds. Tusks from males were larger but more cracked and worn, in part because they fight during breeding season.

''The cracks tend to hamper the carver's ingenuity,'' Kava said. ''Female tusks tend to be easier to carve. They're softer ivory.''

Deceptively heavy, tusks feel more like smooth, dense oak than tooth. The largest tusk weighed 9 pounds and was close to 30 inches long.

''Imagine carrying two of those from your upper jaw,'' said Marc Webber, a Fish and Wildlife Service marine mammal biologist.

To the walrus, they're much more than decoration.

The Latin genus name for walrus is odobenus, which means ''tooth-walker,'' said Fish and Wildlife biologist Jonathon Snyder. Walruses use their modified upper canines to clamp down on ice and haul themselves out of the water.

Tusks also may be helpful in diving. Walruses are bottom feeders and typically dive 100 to 300 feet to find clams and other mollusks.

''They probably help in a ballast mode,'' Webber said. ''They're very heavy on their heads.''

Suction feeders, walruses use a powerful set of whiskers to find clams, sand worms and tube worms. They do not use tusks for grazing, although tusk marks have been found on the ocean bottom.

''They're kind of balancing on the bottom with them,'' Webber said.

Females don't fight, but both sexes use tusks for protection against their primary predator, polar bears. Walruses use tusks to kill seals when they can.

Svarny, the first of the buyers, is a Unangan. She prefers the Native name for her people to the Russian version, Aleut.

''We're trying to educate people,'' she said.

She said planned to carve long strips from one tusk.

''Mainly I want to make a couple of large bentwood hats,'' she said.

Lorita Linder of Ninilchik said she would use her ivory for jewelry.

''I do a lot of necklaces, earrings, bracelets and ivory spoons,'' she said.

Joseph Agibinik, an Eskimo originally from Unalakleet and now living in Clam Gulch, was pleased with a 2-pound tusk and an 8-ounce tusk he left with.

''It's a score. It's a touchdown,'' Agibinik said.

He described himself as an amateur carver. He chose smaller tusks that had few scars and said he may polish them and leave them whole.

''It's more artistic than what I can make it,'' he said.

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