#AntarcticAlphabet: F is for fur

Fur sealers were first. Cook sent back reports of the millions of seals to be found in South Georgia and immediately they came. When Larson began industrial whaling he named his base Grytviken, Pot Cove, for the old cauldrons littering the beach, remnants of the seals melted for blubber.

Mostly, these men came for fur. The fur seals of South Georgia and Antarctica have thick lustrous coats. Wet, it lies sleek and impermeable, the outer layer shedding water and the inner layer repelling it before it can reach the leather below. Dry it lies thick and flat, an orderly sheen for a muff, a coat, a cape.

The heroic explorers were fantasists, driving the hard realism of supplies, dogs and national competition. Ego and imperialist ambition fuelled their surveys as much as bravery and scientific curiosity. Fur fed another fantasy, the gold-rush dream of get-rich-quick. Seals were killed in such numbers they were thought extinct but a small colony survived. Now they number in the millions but breed only in a few places and their genetic heritage is limited and vulnerable. The fur-rush lasted just decades but it was enough. How fantastic is the dream of unlimited supply, no limits to growth in the pursuit of the well-lined pocket?

Today seals are legally killed in three places. The international treaties (CITES) allow regulated fur-trade, permitted to rich, highly-developed Canada and Norway. In Greenland, indigenous people can kill the seals for meat, but permits are expensive and hard to get so they cannot trade the fur and it must be left to rot. It is further fantasy that the system operates equally between peoples even when CITES has been a powerful force for ecological good.

We need to dream in daylight, with our eyes wide open.

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