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Valery Krivoshapkin was counting time in a motorboat on a river in the Russian Arctic when another scuba diver tossed in the tusk of a woolly mammoth that lived at least 10,000 years ago.
After a month of searching in a remote corner of the vast northern republic of Yakutia, Mr Krivoshapkin’s six-man “brigade” had retrieved only mammoth teeth, a rib and part of a jaw, just enough to put them on the scent of a bigger find.
The diving was dangerous, with headlamp visibility less than two feet and the frigid black bottom cluttered by sunken trees. But on this August afternoon, the agonising search had been rewarded with a mammoth tusk that they would go on to sell to Chinese ivory carvers for £8,000.
“I thought, I just got a lot richer” when the tusk was found, Mr Krivoshapkin remembered.
China’s ban on elephant ivory last year has spurred on a mammoth tusk rush in Yakutia, where an estimated 500,000 tonnes of mammoth remains lie preserved in the permanently frozen soil.
More tusks are washing out of the ground than ever before thanks to climate change, which has begun thawing the permafrost and increasing precipitation.
Finding tusks has become the livelihood of many impoverished villagers in northern Yakutia, but much of the trade remains under the table despite attempts to regulate it.
Shady middlemen make the bulk of the profit, while illicit water pumps are widely employed. Mammoth prospectors go broke as often as they strike it rich, and a few even lose their lives in the hazardous quest for “ice ivory”.
“It really resembles the Klondike at the end of 19th century,” said Albert Protopopov, head of mammoth fauna studies at the Yakutia academy of sciences. “The main profit goes not to those who search for tusks but to those who finance it … But in the north it’s the only way to make money, since fishing is seasonal.”
“Mammoth tusks are crazy, they’re like a drug, they sell quickly,” said Vadim Strochkov, whose company in the regional capital of Yakutsk is trying to buy and export tusks legally. “That’s why everyone wants into this business.”
When the woolly mammoths mysteriously died out 10,000 years ago, their remains were essentially put on ice in Yakutia, home of the coldest permanently inhabited settlement on earth.
Japanese scientists have even partially revived cell nuclei from a 28,000-year-old mammoth found well-preserved in Yakutia, they said last week.
Although many have wondered about the possibility of cloning these ancient creatures, including Vladimir Putin when he visited Yakutsk’s mammoth museum in 2014, current techniques will not allow it.
The first merchant expeditions to Yakutia in search of mammoth tusks to sell to Chinese carvers date to the 18th century. The Yakut people have been stumbling across mammoth bones since long before that.
Since the remains were most often found on eroding river banks, they knew the extinct creature as the “water ox”.
Myths envisioned winter as a giant water ox that came out of the Arctic ocean; with each step south his horns grew bigger and the land grew colder.
Tusk hunting expanded into a cottage industry as carved tusks became a prized status symbol for China’s growing moneyed class, and demand spiked after the ivory ban.
A tusk carved by a Chinese master can sell for £750,000 and up. Yakutia now exports 70 tonnes of tusks to China each year.
About half off this trade is on the black market, local authorities have previously estimated. Speculators buy tusks at dusty garages in Yakutsk for up to £300 per kilogramme and sell them for £750 in Hong Kong, often dodging export duties or even smuggling them across the border.
In December, a patrol seized 500 kilogrammes of mammoth tusks from a group of Russians and Chinese on a border lake.
Meanwhile, those who try to export legally can spend months stuck in red tape at customs, Mr Strochkov said.
As long as Russia’s parliament doesn’t pass a law reclassifying mammoth tusks as a commercial product rather than a collector’s item, their sale exists in a legal grey area.
Legislation to this effect has been stuck in parliament since 2013, and the recent state television film Isle of Skeletons smearing tusk hunters as “illegal prospectors” and “evil-doers” gave little hope that this would change.
“I think the government will help, but for now it’s only helping with words,” Mr Strochkov said, complaining that without state investment he can’t compete with Chinese buyers offering cash upfront.
The Yakutia authorities have begun regulating the claims worked by tusk hunters, selling 600 licenses last year, regional lawmaker Vladimir Prokopyev said.
But while searchers are supposed to only gather tusks from the surface of their claim, it’s more effective to blast deep into the permafrost with high-powered water pumps.
Mr Prokopyev admitted it was hard to monitor their far-flung, hard-to-reach work sites in this republic a dozen times the size of Great Britain.
Although he insisted only a few “poachers” rely on these devices, in reality their use is widespread.
“The pumps give lots of material, several times more” than other methods, Mr Krivoshapkin said.
Toiling under clouds of mosquitoes for several weeks each summer, tusk hunters occasionally even find woolly rhinoceros horns, which can fetch more than £5,000 per kilogram for traditional medicine in Vietnam.
The water blasting muddies rivers and drives away fish, while the resulting tunnels can collapse on those inside.
Conservationists have also raised concerns that elephant ivory could be laundered in the guise of mammoth tusks.
But scientists in Yakutsk argued that the mammoth boom has saved elephants while benefitting laboratories, since friendly tusk hunters sell or donate well-preserved carcasses of mammoths, cave lions and other ancient creatures that they find.
“In 300 years, not one important discovery of a mammoth was made by scientists, they were all made by locals,” said Sergei Fyodorov of the mammoth museum. “It’s a huge territory, and many finds are ruined by the time scientists get there.”