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The life of the Mammoth Pirates

With tens of thousands of elephants killed illegally each year, the demand for ivory is as high as ever. In China, ivory is seen as a status symbol, with prices per kilo reaching up to around £850. Much of the poached ivory enters China through a mixture of smuggling and bribery of officials.

Tactics such as allowing a one-time sale of an ivory hoard in the effort to dilute the market have seemingly had little impact on the numbers of elephants dying at the hands of poachers, with elephant numbers continuing to drop at an alarming rate.

However, not all ivory comes in the form of elephant tusks.

Between 12,000 – 100,000 years ago, mammoths roamed much of what is now Siberia. Although becoming extinct around 10,000 years ago, it is thought that as many as 10 million may still be buried in the permafrost of the Arctic, preserved along with their tusks, which could reach around 9ft in length.

© Amos Chapple/RFE/RL

Amos Chapple for Radio Free Europe accompanied some of those on the search for mammoth tusks, and detailed the world of the 'Mammoth Pirates'.

Due to the high demand for ivory, mostly from China, hunting for mammoth tusks has become a lucrative business, with some ‘mammoth pirates’ becoming local millionaires of their Siberian villages. As the climate temperature increases, some of the permafrost areas which contain mammoth remains have melted, leaving the bones and tusks exposed – easy pickings for those taking advantage of the market’s recent foray into ‘ethical’ (and legal) ivory. However, since the inevitable white gold rush, the majority of exposed tusks have already been taken, sold to agents who pay out large amounts of money to then sell the tusks on.

Having exhausted the supply of tusks on the surface, focus has now been turning to what lies beneath, and how to excavate it efficiently.

In the summer months of the past few years, the Yakutia region of Siberia has experienced an influx of prospective mammoth hunters who bring along huge amounts of equipment like water pumps and motors. River water is blasted at the ground and hills, excavating away or eroding holes and caverns into the permafrost to unearth any hidden mammoth remains within.

© Amos Chapple/RFE/RL

The impact on the environment is one of devastation; as well as gasoline fumes entering the air as the pumps take up water, the rivers themselves are often left ravaged, full of run-off silt and depleted of fish.

© Amos Chapple/RFE/RL

Unfortunately for the prospectors themselves, the hunt for mammoth ivory is more likely to end up making them a loss; only around 20-30% of them will make a profit from finding tusks, and the rest may end up in debt after renting or buying equipment. With families waiting for them at home in impoverished towns and villages that offer little in the way of jobs, however, many feel that the risk is worth the possible reward.

© Amos Chapple/RFE/RL

There is some debate as to whether or not mammoth ivory is a sustainable way to satiate the demand for ivory, or if it drives the demand higher, as the ‘legal’ ivory becomes more readily available. Along with mammoth ivory comes the possibility of mislabelling illegal elephant ivory in order to pass it off as mammoth.

With China announcing a ban on the ivory trade and production by the end of 2017, it is unclear if this will help the elephant population, or focus demand to black markets underground.

Agroisolab works alongside WWF using stable isotope analysis to testing elephant ivory against established reference samples, even without a declared origin. Tracing poached ivory back to its origin is important to the reduction of poaching; analysis can identify areas targeted by poachers, which can then be classed as high-risk and lead to fewer elephant deaths through concentrated surveillance.

Along with other organisations such as the Goethe-Institut Hamburg, WWF and the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety, Agroisolab assisted on developing a tool to analyse the origin of ivory: ivoryID. IvoryID works by comparing the measured isotopes of an ivory sample to a reference database of collected samples to determine where the ivory is likely to originate.

In regards to mammoth ivory, Agroisolab is interested in acquiring Siberian samples for use as reference material with an aim of being able to offer work with mammoth ivory in the future. For more information, please visit our website.

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