Magazine article Newsweek

The Fall of the Walrus

Magazine article Newsweek

The Fall of the Walrus

Article excerpt

Why did the bulls plunge off an Alaskan cliff?

WHY ARE THE WALRUSES killing themselves? In the last week of August, 70 two-ton bulls climbed to the top of a cliff above Maggie Beach, a remote and forbidding area in southwestern Alaska. One by one, the huge and ungainly mammals waddled over the edge and fell 100 feet onto the rocks below. It was the third consecutive year that walruses plunged to their death on this beach--and scientists still can't explain why.

For as long as humans can remember, every summer walrus bulls "haulout" along the beaches of Bristol Bay to sun and feed themselves in anticipation of the long winter ahead. The giant herds--there are an estimated 12,000 bulls--congregate in a corner of the Togiak National Wildlife Reserve; together they form the Largest concentration of walruses on the North American mainland. Until the fall of 1994 the walruses were content to lounge along the sandy shore. Then one day, says Togiak Reserve manager Aaron Arehibeque, a fierce storm struck the cape, and some of the animals retreated up a bluff in search of shelter, or so scientists thought. Perhaps disoriented or unsteady on rain-slickened grass, 42 of the bulls fell over the edge of the cliff. During another storm in October 1995, 17 more died.

But this year, the walruses began climbing the bluff late on a clear, moonlit night. The next morning, two biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service camping at a field station near the beach noticed the migration. They managed to turn back 150 bulls, Archibeque says, but 70 reached the top where almost all plunged to their death. …

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