SEATTLE -- A two-year federal undercover operation has broken up one of the biggest illegal wildlife slaughters in modern Alaska history.
Drugs, savagely beheaded animals, traditional Eskimo lifestyles and tourists' fancy for ivory all are intertwined in the case.
So far, 29 people in Alaska -- Eskimos as well as non-natives -- have been charged, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says at least 80 others could be arrested in the massacre of protected walrus to provide ivory for the tourist trade.
Federal agents say that not only walrus tusks, but also polar bear hides, seal skins and sea otter furs, were illegally marketed for cash and drugs.
Authorities described a loose ring of "buddies" that butchered animals illegally on the west and north coasts of Alaska, sold the valuable ivory and hides to undercover agents in Anchorage and then purchased marijuana and cocaine to take back to the lonely and isolated villages of bush Alaska.
To back up the charges, the Fish and Wildlife Service released a videotape allegedly taken by one of its agents in the course of a sting operation.
In the edited tape, a group of Eskimo hunters in the Bering Sea approach an ice floe in their traditional skin boats. More than a half-dozen hunters stand off and open fire with rifles at close range into small herds of walrus. The shooting appears indiscriminate. The huge, bewhiskered beasts are shot where they lay basking in the air. Others are shot as they try to swim to safety.
The hunters then approach walrus carcasses, hack off the heads for ivory and roll the blubbery bodies to the cold sea. Untold other wounded animals flounder in the water and almost certainly perish.
"I almost didn't let the videotape out. It goes almost as far as you can go in shock value," said U.S. Attorney Wevley William Shea in Anchorage.
The cornerstone of the sting operation was a storefront ivory trading post established and operated by two federal agents in Anchorage. They bought 693 pounds of raw ivory tusks (a single walrus tusk weighs 2 to 5 pounds), 32 walrus heads, six polar bear hides, four seal skins and nine sea otter hides -- all sold illegally.
Neither walruses nor polar bears are endangered in Alaska, but both populations are strictly protected.
By law, Eskimos and other indigenous Alaskans can kill walruses, polar bears and other sea creatures for food and to make traditional native handicrafts for sale. But animals cannot be killed wantonly or wastefully for tusks or pelts alone. Any animal pieces offered for public sale as the result of such subsistence hunting must be "worked" by native artisans.
Polar bear hides, for instance, would have to be made into rugs to be legal. They can fetch $5,000 easily on the Anchorage fur market. Ivory must be carved or scrimshawed. A full tusk that is ornately finished can bring $1,000.
The Fish and Wildlife Service said it paid about $25 a pound for the raw ivory in its sting. Agents said that to their surprise, the illegal ivory and pelt traders were more often interested in finding drugs than cash.
The operation reached a climax Wednesday, Thursday and yesterday when the National Guard and more than 120 federal and state agents, flying in two C-130 military airlift planes and a Blackhawk helicopter, fanned out into rural western Alaska, into Nome and Dillingham and any number of small villages in between. The size of the law enforcement army was astonishing for Alaska, where normally only four Drug Enforcement Administration agents and seven Fish and Wildlife agents are posted.
Eskimo leaders reacted with both gratitude and uneasiness about the operation.
Tribal officials said they were happy for anything that would reduce the flow of drugs into distant villages, and declared their support for the U.S. government requirement that animals not be wasted.
"This was clearly wanton waste, and that's not acceptable to the native value system," said Julie Kitka, president of the Alaska Federation of Natives.
But across the state, natives were also alarmed about the public outcry and potential backlash against traditional native crafts and the subsistence lifestyle.
"It's real touchy all the time," said Anchorage ivory carver Leonard Savage. "I had a shop down on L Street. I had people come in all the time just to give me a hard time about it."