Woolly mammoths may have been extinct for thousands of years, but their tusks have recently become part of a booming ivory trade between Russia and China – and it could be down to global warming. According to experts, the effects of global warming in the Arctic have made it possible to unearth tusks which, until now, have been preserved in the icy Siberian tundra.
On Wednesday, it was reported that Chinese customs officers had seized more than a tonne of tusks from woolly mammoths in north-east China back in February. State media claimed the haul – which was discovered at the port of Luobei in Heilongjiang province – came from Russia. As well as more than 100 woolly mammoth tusks, the hefty discovery also contained 37 woolly rhino horn parts and more than a tonne of jade – all hidden in concealed compartments in a truck.
A customs officer was quoted as saying the largest piece of mammoth ivory found in the truck was more than 1.6m (5ft) long. The truck’s driver – who is said to have claimed he was carrying only soybeans – is reported to have fled the scene as the vehicle was searched but was later found in a hotel along with the owner of the goods – identified only by his surname, Han.
Both men were arrested. Han is said to have built the secret compartments into the truck for the purposes of smuggling.
According to Professor Douglas MacMillan – a professor of conservation and applied resource economics at the University of Kent, specialising in the economics of wildlife conservation; wildlife trade and poaching; human wildlife conflict; and land use change – the melting of the permafrost due to global warming is one of the main reasons why so many woolly mammoth skeletons have been uncovered recently.
What’s more, he says, there could be “hundreds of thousands” more still frozen in time beneath the ice. The ivory, preserved for thousands of years, is in a good condition, claims the professor. “The exceptionally large tusks are used for highly valued carved ornaments that have traditionally been used as gifts for senior officials and business leaders,” he says, adding: “The value of mammoth ivory is actually increasing at the moment because of the impending ban on elephant ivory in China.”
China to ban elephant ivory
In December 2016, China – the world’s largest importer of elephant ivory tusks – announced a ban on elephant ivory, which is set to come into play by the end of 2017. In March this year, the country closed down a third of its ivory retailers and factories, with the remaining 105 retailers and factories scheduled to close before the year is up.
So should the sale of mammoth ivory be illegal?
Woolly mammoths died out around 10,500 years ago, with human hunting and environmental changes said, by scientists, to have led to their extinction. Although there is no international ban on the trade of their tusks, some conservation experts believe the sale mammoth ivory should be made illegal, arguing that it increases the demand for ivory of any kind. Some traffickers, too, attempt to pass off the sale of elephant ivory as mammoth ivory. The two look almost identical to the untrained eye.
“If made illegal then I suspect more elephants would die at the hands of poachers due to this price effect.” Prof MacMillan, however, says banning the sale of mammoth ivory would, in fact, do more harm than good; potentially driving the trade underground and into the hands of organised crime groups.
In fact, he claims, the sale of mammoth ivory could actually help save some elephants. “The evidence suggests that when both are legally traded, mammoth ivory does partially substitute for elephant ivory – hence the trade saves some elephants from the poachers.” Making the trade of mammoth ivory illegal, he adds, would come with its own risks for elephants. “I would be concerned that this would only serve to drive up prices for elephant ivory,” he says. “If made illegal then I suspect more elephants would die at the hands of poachers due to this price effect.”
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