Hunters in a high-tech world

Kulusuk, Greenland - About a month ago, while most people were watching a dog sled race, one villager here in Kulusuk spotted a polar bear out on the glacier about a mile away - much closer to the community than is usually the case. He alerted the others, who all ran out to chase down the polar bear and kill it.

The snapshots taken that day show Inuit children running along excitedly as the bear's carcass is dragged back to the village on a dog sled. As is the custom, the villager who first saw the great white beast got the hide. The meat was divided up among the others.

"That's the golden rule" of hunting, says Mike Nicolaisen, the young Greenlander who manages the only hotel here.

If you wince at the image of a wild animal being shot and butchered this way, you're on the other side of a cultural divide between those who don't think of their position in the food chain much beyond Safeway and those who, like the Kulusuk villagers, hunt animals as a way of life. I'm not talking about sport hunters here, but of those who survive by their hunting skills.

In this fast-paced, high-tech world, there still are cultures that do this. From Africa to Alaska - our Cessna's flight route - these are controversial practices involving such fundamental values as local economics, environmental sustainability, and the treatment of animals (some of them endangered).

In central Africa, for example, there's a tradition of hunting "bushmeat" for consumption. This includes the killing of many primates such as gorillas and monkeys. It's gotten so widespread, warns the environmental group World Conservation Union, that 50 primate species could become extinct within a few decades, and 88 other species are endangered. Over the past decade, refugees in Africa's "first world war" - widespread internal revolts and cross-border conflicts - have resorted to eating bushmeat to survive.

In the Pacific Northwest, the Makah Indians generated worldwide concern over their desire to hunt whales in Puget Sound. In Alaska and northern Canada, the subsistence hunting of whales, seals, and other animals has also generated controversy.

Here in Greenland, where the population of 55,000 is 80 percent Inuit or mixed Inuit-Danish, subsistence hunting and fishing accounts for 80 percent of the economy in places. For 5,000 years, Greenlanders have lived on wildlife in a relationship they find deeply harmonious. They invented the kayak and the harpoon to take whales and seals. Polar bears, musk oxen, arctic hares, and foxes are hunted as well.

The culture here reflects this. The paintings lining the walls of a conference center in Sondrestrom - sophisticated, impressionistic works - show women skinning seals. The sculpture on the mantelpiece of the best restaurant in town is of a polar bear and a seal in deadly combat. In a country where all fresh produce has to be imported at great expense, meat is the main menu item. Reindeer is a particular favorite. (In the Alaskan Athabascan language, "Eskimo" means "eaters of raw meat.") A vegetarian would have a very hard time in Greenland.

People have tried to limit some subsistence-hunting practices. Greenpeace fought to stop the hunting of whales and seals here. Governments have tried to outlaw whale hunting as well. But realizing the impact such a ban would have on certain native cultures and economies, the International Whaling Commission allows subsistence whaling: "whaling for purposes of local consumption carried out by or on behalf of aboriginal, indigenous, or native peoples who share strong community, familial, social, and cultural ties related to a continuing and traditional dependence on whaling...."

It's not as if the rest of the world doesn't play an indirect part in wildlife hunting in Africa, Greenland, and Alaska. Body parts from primates fetch a high price in Asia as medicines with supposedly powerful effects. International logging in central Africa has further hurt endangered primates by reducing their habitat. The expensive sealskin jackets sold in shops here mainly go to European and American tourists.

Our cultures have deep differences, but we share an indirect responsibility - whether we stalk polar bears along the rocky, ice-clogged coast of Greenland or buy tasteful Scandinavian-design furniture of African hardwood for our suburban home.

*A twice-weekly series. Stories have run Thursdays and Mondays since May 1.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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