Academic journal article Tamkang Review

Beauty and the Enchanted Beast: The Narwhal (Monodon Monoceros) in the Canadian Cultural Landscape

Academic journal article Tamkang Review

Beauty and the Enchanted Beast: The Narwhal (Monodon Monoceros) in the Canadian Cultural Landscape

Article excerpt

Introduction

This essay explores a historic review of the narwhal in human culture, and examines the extent to which this cetacean is linked with the Canadian populations' oceanic identity. Moreover, through the examination of popular stories, myths and current news items on the species, it explores the extent of the narwhal's presence in Canada's collective consciousness prior to it being represented on both the Northwest Territories and Nunavut's coat of arms and its recognition thereafter. Mass media can play an important role in developing, reflecting and shaping the popular perceptions of wildlife concerns, and since the narwhal received near threatened status (2008), news media reports concerning issues that impact on the conservation of the species have increased in frequency. Newspaper articles and news related pieces serve to educate the public on matters that may be somewhat removed from their daily routines, in as much as these same stories can reflect community concerns and nurture human bonds with the species in question. Indeed, "the seascape is a living history with associated myths, stories, legends that provide moral and cultural guidelines [; it] is the storehouse of social identity..." (Cordell 307).

"Man is the principal predator of narwhals" (Reeves and Tracey 4; Laidre and Heide-Jorgensen, "Arctic Sea"), and the opportunistic hunting of the species extends into the distant past (Scoresby, "An Account"; Murdoch; Lubbock). The historical accounts of the narwhal in Canadian culture are mainly representative of a conceptual coalescence between the consumption of nonhuman nature and commercial trade. The narwhal in many human narratives is closely linked with economic exploitation and how it may, in part, comprehensively respond to an anthropocentric or human-focused need for i.e., wonder, weaponry and as a medicinal cure-all (Shepard). Conversely, in light of its historical narrative connection with the unicorn, the narwhal's existence has itself come into question (Manguel; Tat). Moreover, the narwhal is a species which has not survived in captivity and as a result has had little firsthand exposure to the general public (Reeves and Tracey; Milius). The doubtful existence of the narwhal as a result of its mythological ties has been fateful for those with interests in oil explorations within its habitats, as they have perceived the species as an "environmental nuisance" (Lopez 29). The lack of tangible data on the narwhal has only served to heighten a human curiosity about the species, and a continual fascination for the wonder of this enchanted being.

Unfortunately, in recent years the narwhal's welfare has been under notable threat. Climate change is increasingly altering the species' available habitats as are current drilling and mining projects (American Cetacean Society (ACS) 2005). A stew of chemical pollutants circling and permeating Arctic environments has resulted in high levels of heavy metals in the skin of the narwhal (Milius). In addition, the overfishing of the species for its tusk has diminished the narwhal population while overfishing of the species' key prey has reduced the narwhal's available food source. The Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceand (DFO) sets yearly quotas that are monitored by the International Whaling Commission, and it has also been reported that there has been a lack of compliance for the set quotas (Finley et al.; Finley and Miller; Hrynyshyn and Sorg; Nicklen). However, more recent appreciation for the efforts of conservation groups that champion the species is gaining force. In the case of the Canadian peoples of Northwest Territories and Nunavut, the cultural, social, and economic worth of the narwhal is reflected by its place on their code of arms. The prominence of the narwhal as a valued emblem of the Canadian North can contribute to the general public's compassion for and understanding of the needs of this species and their connection with the country's aquatic heritage. …

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