Tahlequah – The Orca in Mourning

It’s not unusual for certain species to display signs of grief – giraffes, chimps, dolphins, gorillas, crows. Elephants, for example, return to the body of a dead companion multiple times over. Time and time again, research has shown that they are able to demonstrate a level of empathy that many only thought possible in humans.

Females have been shown to comfort calves by touching and cradling them with their trunks. When an individual has fallen over or becomes stuck, other elephants have been known to assist so they can continue moving as one. Amazingly some have even been known to remove foreign objects, such as spears and veterinary darts from others bodies.

Like elephants, killer whales are emotionally complex beings. Their brains are extremely developed – the second biggest among all ocean mammals, and their capability of understanding means they are able to learn local dialects, teach each other specialised methods of hunting, and pass down unique behaviours through generations.

– A GREAT LOSS –

The story J-35, or Tahlequah, has triggered a ripple of grief that has been felt around the world. Since July 24th and as of August 3rd, the 20 year old orca has been carrying her dead calf through the water of the Pacific Northwest coast.  Tahlequah is a member of an endangered pod of Southern resident killer whales, her calf who died just 30 minutes after birth, was born near the San Juan islands. While it is not uncommon for orcas and dolphins to grieve the loss of a family member for sometimes as long as a week, experts believe this is the longest period of mourning on record for an orca.

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Tahlequah carrying her calf’s body. Photograph credit: Michael Weiss, Center of Whale Research.

The grieving mother who has been refusing to let go of the calf has been carrying the infant by pushing it with her snout, even diving under to retrieve it should it slide off, or by carrying it with one fin. When Tahlequah has grown tired, other members of the pod have come forward to carry the calf for her.

Rightly so, experts are growing concerned for Tahlequah’s wellbeing.

Combined with their extended family K and L pods, they inhabit a huge territory that includes Seattle, Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbia. With only 75 members of the Southern resident orca clan, every birth matters and time is rapidly running out. The J-pod has not had a successful birth in three years. Ken Balcomb of Center for Whale Research believes it may be as soon as five years: “We’ve got at most 5 more years of reproductive life in this population to make it happen” He continues by warning “If we don’t do it in those 5 years it isn’t going to happen.” 

– NOT ENOUGH TO GO AROUND –

Ken also blames the lack of food source for the doomed pregnancies – wild salmon, particularly Chinook, found throughout Washington state and British Columbia acts as a primary food supply for the endangered population of orca. Unfortunately, but hardly surprising, Chinook salmon are also endangered.

The lack of regular and healthy (these fish have been found with prozac, nicotine and cocaine in their system) could explain the demise of another unfortunate member of the J-pod. J-50 or Scarlet, a 4 year old orca female is literally starving to death. A white patch has been spotted on the back of her head, near her blowhole, and experts are panicking it could be an infection. The poor whale is so emaciated, the back of her cranium is visible.

The federal government is hatching a plan in an attempt to save Scarlet, this will include feeding live Chinook dosed with medicine, while biologists are planning a health assessment for her, which will gauge her activity and breathing levels. Brad Hanson of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle said Scarlet has lost as much as 20% of her bodyweight: “There are a lot of ifs, whether or not she will even take the fish.” He then added “Her survival could only be a few days. She has continued to decline.” 

– MORE HUMAN THAN HUMANS –

Some have been questioning if Tahlequah is really mourning, but I ask what else could she possibly be doing? Most wouldn’t doubt if a dog felt pain or grief, or happiness and joy, so why doubt something as intelligent, sensitive, curious and amazingly complex as a killer whale.

The fate of Tahlequah and Scarlet at the moment remains unclear. From a conservation point of view, it’s disastrous that an endangered pod has lost another calf and potentially another orca or two. At 20, Tahlequah is of breeding age and her ability to reproduce again is critical.

From my point of view, I hope Tahlequah’s heartbreak hasn’t been for nothing. I hope that we are able to turn our empathy into actions and our grief into solutions. Ultimately, I pray that through her suffering, she is able to eventually find peace.

Please consider adopting one of the Southern resident orcas – proceeds from orca adoptions support ongoing education, research, and public outreach on behalf of the Southern Resident clan: https://whalemuseum.org/collections/adopt-an-orca

Alternatively, a one-off donation that will greatly benefit the Southern Resident community can be made here https://whalemuseum.org/products/make-a-donation or here:  https://www.whaleresearch.com/supportcwr

I want to hear your opinions on this story, let me know your thoughts in the comments:

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The Other Ivory

The ivory trade – every year it’s estimated to be worth £17bn and responsible for the slaughter of 20,000 elephants. It’s an epidemic never far from my mind or any other animal rights campaigner for that matter.

In April 2018 the UK government announced the trade of items made from ivory to be banned, in what the environment secretary Michael Gove claimed to be “one of the toughest in the world.” 

The ban, which is still to be signed into law, comes after 85% of the public supported the proposed act. I’m concerned why the other 15% said otherwise. Many charities praised the move, WWF chief executive Tanya Steel even claimed the UK stance made it a ”global leader in tackling this bloody trade”.

Media attention, charity demands and public outcry brought forwards the act to further protect elephants from poaching, but as of yet, there is no UK wide ban that protects the other victims of this cruel industry, just talk between the government to extend the proposed ban to all other ivory-bearing creatures.

So, what exactly is ivory and who are the other animals affected by this despicable business?

– TOOTH AND BONE –

To put it simply, ivory is the teeth or tusks of animals – most commonly canine teeth, but in elephants, they are actually elongated incisors. Ivory is hard, dense, and made of dentine – a bony tissue, and wrapped in enamel. Depending on the animal, tusks serve many purposes such as digging, gathering food, defence and combat, giving the animals that have them an evolutionary advantage.

Elephant ivory is the most common form but ivory from other species has also been used for centuries to make a huge range of items, everything from false teeth, piano keys, and religious objects, to buttons and art.

– NARWHAL –

Dubbed for centuries as the “unicorn of the sea”, the unmistakable, spiralled tusk of the mysterious narwhal caused quite the stir among the Europeans, particularly monarchs, while the Arctic was still mostly unexplored.

Queen Elizabeth I is said to have spent £10,000 on one – equivalent roughly to £1.5m in today’s money. Now the average price for a tusk can vary drastically from between £3,000 to £12,000, while rare double tusks can fetch as much as £25,000.

The tusk, no longer considered that of a unicorn, is actually a protruding canine tooth – most commonly found on males. The tusk which has a sensory capability and up to 10 million nerve endings inside, can grow up to 10 feet long!

The IUCN does not consider the narwhal, a relative of the white beluga whale, to be at immediate risk; therefore they are currently listed as “least concern”. However, the impact of hunting and changes in their natural environment means thing could go south. And quickly.

Native Inuit permitted under a Canadian and Greenland permit, have hunted these whales as a source of food and income for centuries. A Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) study found that shops in Japan were selling narwhal tusks as a tonic to treat fever, measles and other diseases, with shop prices varying from £421£724 for 100g.

Ultimately the WWF and TRAFFIC concluded from a 2015 survey, that the effects of climate change mean the hunting of narwhal needs to be monitored and regulated more precisely, but they didn’t consider the current international trade to be a threat to the survival of the species today.

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Narwhal

 

– WARTHOG –

Unlike elephants, the tusks of a warthog are less sought after. The common warthog is identifiable by two pairs of tusks or canine teeth, that protrude from the mouth and curve upwards. The lower pair, far smaller than the upper, become razor sharp because they rub against the upper pair every time the mouth opens or closes.

The tusks that grow constantly throughout the animals lives are used for digging, for combat with other hogs and in defence against predators.

The upper set of tusks are the most common form of warthog ivory, typically being carved and sold to tourists in and around east and southern Africa.

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Common warthog

The common warthog is currently listed as “least concern” on the IUCN red list.

– WALRUS –

With tusks that can grow as long as 39 inches in males, walrus ivory comes from two modified canine teeth located in the upper jaw, just like the warthog.

The killing of these animals is illegal under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act – except for Alaskan natives, who hunt to eat them and use their tusks, bones and hides for traditional purposes, within restrictions by countries with territories in the Arctic. The World Wildlife Federation (WWF) believes an average of 5,406 animals were hunted from 2006 07 to 2010 11, which “equates to less than 3% and 4% of the estimated global populations of each subspecies”.

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Pacific walrus

The Pacific walrus is currently listed as “data deficient” on the IUCN red list, whereas the Atlantic walrus is listed as “near threatened”.

– HIPPOPOTAMUS-

Hippopotamus teeth ivory is the second most common type of ivory. It is cheaper than that of elephants, easier to smuggle and extremely durable. The huge canines grow throughout their lives and can reach 60cm in length, their teeth also don’t yellow with age, unlike other ivories, meaning they are often valued higher on the market.

Unregulated hunting of not only their teeth but bones and skin too, coupled with habitat loss and increased human-hippo conflict have lead to a decline in hippo numbers in Africa. At current rates, of just 115,000130,000 across 29 African states, these animals could disappear within a century. While researching I found out this number represents little more than a quarter of Africa’s 400,000 elephant population, quite shocking when you think about it!

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Hippopotamus

The hippotamus is currently listed as “vulnerable” on the IUCN red list.

– SPERM WHALE –

The sperm whale is the largest of toothed whales and the largest of all toothed predators. Mature males average 52ft in length but some can reach as much as 67ft, with the head accounting for onethird of the animal’s whole length. Their sheer size means they have few natural predators, although calves and weakened individual can succumb to orca attacks.

Over the years orcas have also been a source of ivory – although nowadays it is rare for both species to be hunted in this way. Instead, sperm whales are typically hunted as food and they are now considered as “vulnerable” on the red list. In the days of the ”whaling era” (which occurred between the 17th and 20th centuries) it is believed as many as 1,000,000 of these whales were killed, poached for their blubber, oil and meat.

Orca, on the other hand, have not been massively hunted, however, they are still killed for the meat, skin, and internal organs. Capture for entertainment and habitat pollution is considered to be two big threats that endanger this species. As of 2017, they are listed as “data deficient” by the IUCN, something I was surprised to read.

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Sperm whale