Smithsonian Institution gift shops will sell ivory carvings by Alaskan natives despite objections from animal rights groups, who fear the sales will lead to the wanton slaughter of the Pacific walrus.
Carved walrus ivory will appear in museum gift shops beginning late this year, Smithsonian Undersecretary Dean Anderson said Friday.The Washington, D.C.-based museum-and-research complex has not sold any ivory since a special exhibition four or five years ago, partly because of intense opposition from groups including the Humane Society of the United States, Smithsonian officials said.
However, the Smithsonian said it had changed its position at the urging of the Eskimo Walrus Commission, which tracks walrus populations, and Alaska Gov. Steve Cowper.
In a letter to Smithsonian officials, Cowper argued they have a mission to support native cultures as well as wildlife conservation.
"Ivory carving is an incidental and traditional use of the animal, and in some cases, is an important part of the village economy," Cowper wrote June 29.
The ivory comes from the Pacific walrus, which is not endangered or threatened and which is killed by natives for food. The ivory is carved mostly by Eskimos but is also crafted by Indians and the Aleuts.
The carvings will be accompanied by a statement explaining their origin and saying that they provide a livelihood for Alaskan natives, Smithsonian Secretary Robert Adams said. The statement also explains the Smithsonian's dual concerns for conservation and the preservation of indigenous cultures.
Adams said the Smithsonian has been caught in a cross-fire on the issue.
"We could not justifiably seek to avoid all controversy by simply excluding the sale of such materials," he said in a July 29 letter to Cowper.
Animal rights and environmental groups fear the Smithsonian's market for carved ivory will provide an incentive for illegal killing of walrus, said Christine Stevens, secretary of the board for the Monitor Consortium. The Washington, D.C.-based organization represents about 30 such groups.
"We're very much concerned about wasteful killing of walruses for the use of their tusks for ivory carving," Stevens said. "We all support subsistence use of walruses for native people who need them to eat, and all use of the tusks and the skins in that case. But we're very much concerned with promoting a commercial use.
"We're afraid this move by the Smithsonian Institution is going to lead to people violating the Marine Mammal Protection Act," she said.
The 1972 federal law makes it illegal for anyone other than Alaskan natives to take marine mammals or possess any part of them. Marine mammal products such as ivory cannot be sold to non-natives unless the items first are turned into native crafts.
As part of a recent investigation, the owner of an Alaskan native handicraft business was charged with misdemeanor conspiracy for allegedly agreeing to "legitimize" ivory by putting scrimshaw on it, allowing it to be sold as an authentic native handicraft.
Stevens said Monitor also has reports of walruses being killed, their tusks taken and the carcasses abandoned. She fears the Smithsonian market can't be filled with ivory only from walruses that are eaten.
Monitor is urging the Smithsonian to substitute carvings of wood or stone for the ivory.
Anderson did not know the quantity of ivory the Smithsonian will offer.