Sustainability of the Russian walrus hunt on Spitsbergen in the 18th century

By drs. Ypie Aalders
PhD Student Arctic Centre, University of Groningen

Walrus ivory has for long been a highly appreciated luxury product in the Russian North. Trade in walrus tusks and crafting of walrus ivory products reached its height during the reign of Peter the Great (1682-1725). The growing demand for walrus tusks soon lead to an overexploitation of walrus stocks along the nortern coasts of Russia. In search for new stocks, the hunters sailed into more and more remote areas leading them to Novaya Zemlya and eventually they even reached Spitsbergen. At Spitsbergen many remains of the Russian walrus hunting period can still be found. Archaeological research here has indicated that the hunters were only interested in the parts of the animals with market value - for instance the ivory tusks - and did not use the meat and other body parts. This resulted in a wasteful use of the natural resources. The use of mass slaughter techniques quickly lead to a dramatic decrease of walruses on Spitsbergen.
The Russian hunters were not able to access the areas where the largest herds of walrusses could be found - in the northeast of Spitsbergen - and so their activities did not lead to a complete extinction of the animals. When in the 19th century the Norwegians take over the Russian walrus hunt they do enter these last refuge areas, quickly leading to an almost complete extinction of the walrus in Spitsbergen. The animal was saved from extinction when it became an protected species in 1952.
Willem Barentsz Poolinstituut

Bundeling van kennis, onderzoek en onderwijs over de Noord- en de Zuidpool

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