Israel moots proposal to regulate trade in mammoth ivory


Ishan Kukreti, Down to Earth Magazine

Date Published

Roughly 4,000 years after the last woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) roamed Wrangel Island in the East Siberian Sea, the Ice Age elephant is making a comeback, among other things, in policy negotiations.

In the upcoming Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Conference of Parties (CoP) 18, Israel has moved a proposal to regulate trade in mammoth ivory. The CoP, which was supposed to take place from May 23 to June 3 in Colombo, has now been postponed due to security concerns in Sri Lanka after the Easter Bombings.

While it may seem surprising that the conservation experts of the world are bothered about an extinct animal, they have some sound reasons to do so.

While most of the remains of mammoths have been fossilised, their tusks — a male tusk grew up to 2.4-2.7 metres and weighed about 50 kg — are still preserved in Siberia’s permafrost. With the legislations around elephant ivory getting tighter to the point of an international commercial ban in 1989, mammoth ivory is seen as an alternative to feed the ivory markets of the world.

There are expeditions being carried out in Siberia to get a piece of this white ‘gold rush’. Studies have found that there has been a fourfold increase in the trade of mammoth ivory between 2004 and 2015. The major exporter of mammoth ivory is Russia and the main importer is China.

Mammoth ivory is a big commercial business. It is legal to trade in mammoth ivory, except in India, where the Supreme Court banned its trade in 2003.

The major legal exporter of mammoth tusks is Russia. Mammoth tusk imports via Hong Kong, one of the main trade routes into mainland China, have greatly expanded from an average of less than 9 tonnes per year from 2000 to 2003 to an average of 31 tonnes per year from 2007 to 2013, the proposal says, quoting studies.

Wholesale prices of mammoth ivory tusks too have increased greatly recently due to the rise in demand in China. For example, in 2010, the wholesale price for the top grades A and B of raw mammoth ivory, averaged together, was US $ 350/kg, while in 2014, comparable high-quality tusks were US $ 1,900/kg on average, according to prices paid by some factories in Beijing.

On the face of it, the use of mammoth ivory seems to be a boon for elephants, saving them from poaching. But that doesn’t seem to actually be the case.

“The issue we have raised in our proposal is the problem that the legal, unregulated trade in mammoth ivory facilitates illegal trade in elephant ivory,” Israel has told the CoP through its proposal.

Studies have found evidence of elephant ivory being sold as mammoth ivory. There are visible differences in size and structure of elephant and mammoth ivory. Another point of difference is the Schreger lines.

Schreger lines are visual artifacts that are evident in the cross-sections of ivory. They are commonly referred to as cross-hatchings, engine turnings, or stacked chevrons. In the case of mammoth ivory, these lines run through at a 90-degree angle while in elephant ivory, they run at a 115-degree angle. The problem is that the two are not easily distinguishable, especially when the pieces are small and carved upon.  

“A recent study published by TRAFFIC on the US ivory market also provides examples of actual cases in the USA where elephant ivory was sold under the claim that it was mammoth ivory, such as a felony conviction in New York of a Manhattan-based antiques merchant for intentionally mislabeling illegal elephant ivory as ‘carved mammoth tusks’,” the proposal says. Studies have also found that dealers in Macau were deliberately mislabeling elephant ivory as mammoth ivory.

Given how unregulated trade can negatively impact elephant conservation, Israel wants to list Woolly Mammoth in Appendix II of CITES. This will, according to Israel, lead to better regulation and documentation of mammoth ivory, preventing elephant ivory’s sale as mammoths.

As there are no provisions under CITES to list an extinct species, Israel wants to list the species under the “look alike criterion”, ie listing a non-endangered species under the appendices as unregulated trade in the species will harm an identical or similar species which is endangered.