Woolly Mammoths Are Long Gone, But The Hunt For Their Ivory Tusks Lives On | KUOW News and Information

Woolly Mammoths Are Long Gone, But The Hunt For Their Ivory Tusks Lives On

Aug 16, 2017
Originally published on August 24, 2017 4:23 am

As a substitute for coveted elephant ivory, mammoth tusks can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. A rush is underway to dig them out of the frozen earth in Siberia and sell them, mostly to China. The hunt is making millionaires of some men living in this impoverished region — but it's also illegal.

Photographer Amos Chapple followed a group of tusk hunters in Siberia on assignment for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. He recalled his three-week journey with NPR's Ailsa Chang.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Interview Highlights

On seeing his first tusk

I saw just one beautiful example of a tusk that came out of the ground right in front of me — it was still, like, cold to the touch when it came out. It weighed about [135 pounds] and it was curled. You know, mammoth tusks are very distinctive, because they're very curly. ... They corkscrew a little bit. And you can still smell the animal in them as well.

On how these tusks are excavated

The reason that Siberia is such a mecca for mammoth tusk hunting is because of the permafrost. So there were mammoths everywhere, and they died and their bones sank into the earth, but in most places they rotted because the soil is warm. But once they lock into the permafrost they can just be there almost indefinitely — the bones just don't decay inside that permafrost.

So you need to carve away that permafrost. And the method that they've developed is to get firefighting pumps, and they pull water out of a nearby river, and then they blast away. ...

Once they see the end of a tusk, they'll just give it a little wiggle, and then blast it some more, give it another wiggle, and eventually it'll come out. It's like extracting a tooth.

On what the excavation does to the environment

They would pull water out from the rivers, they'd blast it into the hillside, and those hillsides would effectively melt back into the river. And so the rivers were completely full of silt. It should be one of the most pristine places on Earth, and these guys didn't even bother taking fishing rods, because the fish were gone.

On the "pretty miserable" hunting conditions

The mosquitoes: that was what made life really, really horrible. ... I remember one day I was trying to cross one of these streams when I fell in, and I sat on the bank and I took off one of my gumboots and tried to squeegee out my sock. And the moment I did that, all these black mosquitoes descended on my white, white feet and the contrast was just so superb. ...

I took a couple of pictures and then I put my socks back on, and then I limped and whimpered my way towards the river — and I remember thinking I would pay hundreds of dollars right now to be able to plunge my feet into icy, cold water.

Morning Edition producer Alyssa Edes (@alyssaedes) contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Last year, China banned the sale of elephant ivory. And the U.S. tightened its rules too. This was all part of an effort to fight poaching. But now there's a race to find another kind of ivory - tusks from long-dead woolly mammoths.

AMOS CHAPPLE: The tusk that I saw sold for around 33, 34,000 U.S. dollars. That's cash in hand in a region where the average salary is about $500 a month. So guys get rich overnight.

CHANG: Photographer Amos Chapple joined a group of tusk hunters in Siberia. He traveled there with Radio Free Europe and told us about his journey over Skype.

CHAPPLE: I saw just one beautiful example of a tusk that came out of the ground right in front of me. It was still, like, cold to the touch when it came out. It weighed about 62 kilograms, and it was curled - you know, they corkscrew a little bit. And you can still smell the animal in them as well - sort of meaty, and - it was - but it wasn't...

CHANG: It's, like, gamey?

CHAPPLE: Yeah, I guess you could say gamey.

CHANG: What does it take to get these tusks, these mammoth tusks, out of the earth?

CHAPPLE: Yeah, so the reason that Siberia is such a Mecca for mammoth tusk hunting is because of the permafrost. So there were mammoths everywhere. And they died. And their bones sank into the earth. But in most places, they rotted because the soil is warm. But once they're locked into the permafrost, they can just be there almost indefinitely. The bones just don't decay inside that permafrost. So you need to carve away that permafrost. And the method that they've developed is to get firefighting pumps. And they pull water out of a nearby river. And then they blast away at the landscape.

CHANG: So they've got these massive fire hoses. They're blasting into the ground. Then what happens? How do you excavate the tusk to keep it intact?

CHAPPLE: Yeah, once they see the end of a tusk, they'll just give it a little wiggle and then blast it some more. Give it another wiggle, and eventually it'll come out. It's like extracting a tooth.

CHANG: And what does that blasting away at the permafrost do to the environment? Did it seem like it would - they were causing real damage?

CHAPPLE: To the rivers, yeah - they would pull water up from the river, then blast it into the hillside. And those hillsides would effectively melt back into the river.

CHANG: Oh.

CHAPPLE: And so the rivers were completely full of silt. It should be one of the most pristine places on earth. And these guys didn't even bother taking fishing rods because the fish were gone.

CHANG: And what is law enforcement in Russia doing about this? Is it a priority for them to catch people who are trying to excavate mammoth tusks?

CHAPPLE: Well, there are what they call (laughter) greenies - greenie patrols. And twice when I was up there - I was there for three weeks. And twice there was one of these greenie scares. So these greenies, they come up with the police. But the fines were around 25 U.S. dollars or something each time.

CHANG: Wow, that's like parking tickets compared to the profits they're making.

CHAPPLE: Exactly. But if they were caught a third time, that would mean they needed to show up in court. So they were very, very nervous of these greenie patrols.

CHANG: You accompanied some of these tuskers for weeks. What were the conditions like on that hunt?

CHAPPLE: (Laughter) Pretty miserable. The mosquitoes - that was what made life really, really horrible.

CHANG: Mosquitoes.

CHAPPLE: Yeah. So the numbers of mosquitoes out there - it's hard to fathom because I remember one day, I was trying to cross one of these streams when I fell in. And I sat on the bank. And I took off one of my gumboots and tried to squeegee out my sock. And the moment I did that, all these black mosquitoes descended on my white, white feet.

CHANG: (Laughter).

CHAPPLE: And the contrast was just so superb.

CHANG: So visually striking for the photographer.

CHAPPLE: So striking, yeah.

CHANG: He couldn't resist.

CHAPPLE: And so I took a couple of pictures. And then I put my socks back on. And then I limped and whimpered my way towards the river. And I remember thinking, I would pay hundreds of dollars right now to be able to plunge my feet into icy cold water.

CHANG: Photographer Amos Chapple, thank you so much for talking with us.

CHAPPLE: Thank you. It was a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.