In one of the world’s last great wildernesses, an underground business has been running for years—clandestine crews of treasure hunters digging up hundreds of tonnes of remains of animals thousands of years old to sell in million-dollar global markets. Melting permafrost is fuelling a new and dangerous ‘gold rush’ in deep Siberia all thanks to global warming and a near-universal ban on ivory trade.
Mammoth tusks have become a hot item ever since Hong Kong, the world’s largest ivory market, committed to a total ban on elephant ivory trade by 2011.
It’s been at least 3,600 years--about halfway the reign of the famous Egyptian pharaohs--since the last mammoths, an extinct species of woolly elephants, walked the face of the planet. That might sound like an incredibly long time by our standards; yet its an iota in the grand scheme of things considering the earliest fossils are dated to 3.4 billion years ago. In fact, mammoth remains are frequently so well preserved that a permafrost mammoth, tens of thousands of years old, was once served for dinner.
So, it’s little wonder that their much harder tusks are sometimes discovered still in pristine condition—good enough to fuel a $40-million-a-year market.
According to Russian officials, woolly mammoth ivory preserved in the country’s permafrost-dominated Yakutia region now makes up to 80 percent of Russia’s illegal trade in unregulated elephant ivory. The prize is huge—officials have estimated that trade in these relics can reach up to $40 million a year.
Prospectors typically dig up the fossils during the bright summer months using simple hand tools including merely using water pumps to blast jets of water at layers of earth to unveil hidden treasures. But amid growing demand, local firms are now turning to more sophisticated methods including using divers to search for mammoth remains in remote riverbeds only accessible by motherboards—all of which can damage local ecosystems and cause environmental harm.
The solution is not as simple as it might appear at first glance.
Local officials have warned that an outright ban on harvesting mammoth remains would equate to disenfranchising local populations who have a right to collect a limited amount of tusks in their habitats and live off the proceeds. And these are not trivial by any stretch of the imagination—mining for mammoth tusks can dig up to 100 tonnes per year with estimates that Yakutia’s unearthed reserves of mammoth fossils amounts to 500,000 tonnes.
But the biggest driver of it all is that there’s a ready market. China has emerged as the biggest buyer of these fossils, with traders rationalizing its an ethical alternative to poaching ivory from Africa’s dwindling elephant populations.
Protecting the woolly mammoth
So, what does the international community think about this? After all, the UN has already sounded the alarm that current living species are declining at an unprecedented rate in human history—and we certainly do not need many more joining the ranks of the long-dead beast.
Well, in a first, the international community appears quite sympathetic and has promised to review a proposal to give protected status to the extinct woolly mammoth.The proposal is set to be discussed at the global CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) conference from 17-28 August this year.
For more information on this unfolding situation, you can watch the Passions for the Mammoth film, which dishes out an interesting take that the mammoth can help save the world’s largest land-dwelling animal--the African elephant--which is listed as a vulnerable species by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature).
By Alex Kimani for SafeHaven.com
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