The Recovery, Care, and Transport of Orphaned Walrus Calves at St. Lawrence Island, Alaska
The population of Pacific walrus (Odobenus rosmarus divergent) is abundant throughout its range. According to a 1993 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) report1(pg. 8), "...1975, 1980, and 1985 survey estimates of 221,360; 246,140; and 232,518 (respectively) are the best estimates of the lower limit of population size." These numbers indicate a return to pre-exploitation levels for the Pacific walrus and there is considerable evidence that this population is once again functioning at or near its carrying capacity.
Every spring female Pacific walruses and their newborn calves migrate north through the Bering Sea, past St. Lawrence Island and into the Chukchi Sea. This is a very inhospitable environment for raising babies, and many walrus calves are known to orphan due to weather, accident, or by the authorized Native subsistence harvest. The vast majority of these orphans are lost as a result of starvation, predation, or are taken for subsistence purposes. A very small number of these animals have been recovered by local authorities and sent to qualified U.S. zoological facilities for rehabilitation and permanent care by the FWS.
In May of 1994, The Aquarium for Wildlife Conservation and Marine World Africa USA conducted a joint expedition that resulted in the successful recovery of seven (2.5) orphaned walrus calves from the Alaskan waters surrounding St. Lawrence Island during the annual spring authorized Native subsistence harvest. This was the first such acquisition of walruses in U.S. waters in approximately 15 years and has provided valuable information regarding the planning, preparation, and execution of a project such as this. Areas of particular importance include research and planning, politics and the permit process, collection in the field, husbandry and medical care under "sub-ideal conditions", and transport back to the respective facilities. Open communication and a high level of cooperation between the zoological institutions, the FWS, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, The Eskimo Walrus Commission, local Native authorities, and the Eskimo people of Gambell, Alaska were fundamental to the successful outcome of this project.
1. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (1993). Draft Final Management Plan for the Pacific Walrus in Alaska. Marine Mammals Management, EWS, Anchorage, AK. 91 pp.