Before it’s too late…

Hunting contributes millions to local communities around the world, but in parts of Greenland, this doesn’t seem to be fully understood – neither by authorities nor by commercial meat hunters. Thomas Nissen investigates…

It could easily have been colder, but the minus 24 degrees we’re experiencing this ‘spring day’ feels cold enough. We are more than 80km from the nearest settlement and about 40 kilometres from our sheltered cabin at the ice-covered fjord.

In front of us, a reindeer has just stood up; this is perhaps the first time this particular reindeer has seen a human, as it stays quite calm while studying us curiously.

Then, a musk ox stands up behind the reindeer, its body forming a silhouette against a gray sky about 50 metres further out. It has not seen us, and we know from our previous observations of musk ox in this area that he will not be not alone. The final stage of this hunt can begin.

One-two-three

We soon make out the shapes of six musk ox bulls ahead. There are three hunters in our group, and the plan is for each hunter to take one bull, if opportunity allows.

We have enough sledge capacity to bring the animals home on one trip, and by shooting three animals in the same group, we will minimise the disruption to other animals in the area.

We put ourselves in position, with Jacob at the far right as the first shooter. To the left of him lies Anthony, then Michael. When Jacob has shot, Anthony has to follow up, after which Michael can seize the chance if the remaining animals have not run off by then.

The frozen snow in front of the barrel is stirred up into a white cloud as Jacob releases his bullet. The rugged 9.3×62 round hits the selected musk ox clean on the shoulder; the animal does not take as much as a single step before it falls. Anthony then puts a perfect shot from his .30-06 into the shoulder of the next bull, which also falls after a few seconds. Michael gets his chance at the third bull.

He puts a well-placed shot in, then, with the bull still standing, a follow-up. The bull runs 30 metres before falling into the snow. Few hunters get to shoot a musk ox in their lifetimes, and to do it on such a beautiful day in this remote wilderness – as these three friends did – is a truly enviable experience.

Hunting musk ox in this part of Greenland has not always been possible. Due to the shape of the ice cap, musk ox never had the opportunity to spread naturally from the tough north and east Greenland wilderness to the more forgiving south-west of Greenland.

To give the locals in this part of Greenland better hunting opportunities, forward-thinking people in the early 1960s moved musk ox from east Greenland to south-west Greenland. This region’s (comparatively) favorable climate and larger food resource meant the animals established themselves rapidly and managed a solid growth in numbers.

Then, at the end of the last millennium, authorities opened up hunting for musk ox in the Kangerlussuaq area. As a result, there has been an economic boost not just for local commercial hunters and Greenlandic hobby hunters, but also visiting hunting tourists and trophy hunting organisers.

Without the movement of the musk ox more than 50 years earlier, this would have not been possible and the three hunters would never have had a day like today.

Snake on the ice

In the following days, we hunt arctic foxes on bait near our hut and snow hares or grouse in the mountains. Ice fishing is also an option, and although the cod that we can get here is not particularly suited for the table, we can still get a use out of it.

The 50 or so fish we get will later be used for the 14 sled dogs that outfitter Erik Lomholt Bek keeps on the edge of the town near the Kangerlussuaq harbour.

At this time of year it is possible to hunt five different game species: the four previously mentioned and reindeer. We won’t be taking any reindeer, as at this time of year it’s only the young bulls who carry antlers. The older bulls cast theirs several months ago and are now preparing to grow them again.

Every morning and evening we see several arctic foxes, of both white and black variation, at the bait station about 80 metres from the hut. Of these we shoot three; all are of the white variation. Every day we eat game meat for dinner – mostly musk ox, but at times grouse and snow hares find their way to the table.

All in all, this hunt has been fantastic. But I have to admit that, as a musk ox hunter with 10 years’ experience, I take some fresh worries with me when I leave the hunting area. This is really a hunting paradise, but like in every other paradise, there is a snake here, slithering on the ice.

The problem is this. Just 10 years ago, it was possible to see family groups of musk ox in wilderness areas going in quite close to the city. On this trip, however, we have not seen a single female musk ox and this despite the fact that we have traveled more than 200 kilometres through the wilderness on snowmobiles.

Ignoring the rules

To find out why this is, we must look at the commercial meat hunt for musk ox, which takes place before trophy hunting every year, which begins in March. Commercial hunting for musk ox is typically done on a snowmobile or ATV, and many hundreds of animals are shot while it is in progress.

According to the outfitter, authorities have now introduced more detailed rules for which animals can be shot during the commercial meat hunt. The rules now speecify that all animals in a family group should not be eliminated – so cows with calves are not legal to shoot.

The authorities also introduced a ‘preservation of old trophy bulls’ rule so these could be saved for the upcoming trophy hunt and maximise their value.

However, something suggests that the rules were not followed, since, like I said, we did not see any cows during the hunt, and we had to go quite far into the wilderness to find bulls. Rumour says that old bulls have also been shot, and this was done for the value of the wool extracted from their skins, which can attract a high price.

All of which results in a population imbalance that means that the hunters must, each year, drive further into the wilderness to harvest animals during the commercial meat hunt.

It also means that the number and quality of animals in the coastal concessions available to trophy hunters in the summer and autumn tends to get poorer.

The existence of the musk ox overall in south-west Greenland is not yet threatened – there are many thousands of animals out there, deeper into the wilderness – but nevertheless, the present method of carrying out the commercial meat hunt does not seem either sensible or sustainable.

Long-term threat

If the musk ox will be threatened in the long term, or if the long distances will make commercial meat hunting unprofitable, it is difficult to say. One thing is for certain right now: The experience on this hunt was top-notch despite the long distances between the animals. The outfitters will keep finding ways to make it work in the coming years.

On the other hand, if no efforts are made by the authorities to gain control over the commercial musk ox meat hunt and enforce the regulations, the experience of a trophy hunt in the wilderness of Greenland will become poorer and poorer (or more and more expensive) as time  goes by.

Hunting tourism is contributing a large amount of money to this arctic country, so you would think politicians would be keen to solve the issue. However, they don’t seem to be that bothered, and neither do the locals who benefit from the commercial meat hunt.

I have to admit that the above-mentioned thoughts about the future of the musk ox hunt in south-west Greenland only came to me a few days later. They were not yet in my head as, after the hunt and after many kilometres of driving over the icy fjord to reach the dog pen, we fed the frozen cod to Erik’s sled dogs.

At the time I was thinking that this activity was a thread back to the past, when the hunting culture lived in balance with nature. Today, the sled dogs are only here because trophy hunters now and then request their use as a romantic feature of the trophy hunt.

In reality, the traditional method of the hunt was years ago replaced with the horsepower of engines. But reality is not always easy to get your head around.

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