Yakutia’s Mammoth Quest: Who hunts for tusks in ‘ivory rush’ and why (Russia)


Tass: Russian News Agency

Date Published
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YAKUTSK: The rush for mammoth tusks should be regulated by federal legislation, as scientists highlight the damage from the illegal production is more than one billion rubles ($17.5 million) a year. The authorities of Yakutia (where about 70% of the mammoth fauna is) have been insisting for several years now that a law on the mammoth fauna should be adopted, or at least appropriate amendments should be made to the existing law on the subsoil, which currently regulates this sphere of activity.

For people who live in Yakutia’s Arctic areas where mammoths’ “cemeteries” are abundant, digging out tusks is a key way of earning a living. But besides the locals, this ‘treasure hunt’ attracts people from across the region.
TASS spoke to a tusk hunter, Alexander Popov, to learn about the situation in this business.

Arctic life drives residents to hunt for tusks

Life in the North is tough: locals are unemployed, products that are delivered are expensive, a pack (1 liter) of milk is 150 rubles ($2.6), a kilo of potato may be as high as 200 rubles ($3.5). Thus, the easiest way to make money is to sell tusks. “The shore of the Laptev Sea is divided between the groups, which have been digging out tusks for decades, and getting in there from the outside is impossible,” the hunter elaborated. “To join the effort you must have friends or relative doing the job there – people work in groups of 15-20 diggers.”

Some come here with borrowed money or with money from putting up their real estate as collateral, as for an expedition, which is 1.5-2 months long, a person should have at least 500,000 rubles ($8,800). “Quite a lot of money will go on fuel and food, which are brought from Yakutsk, since along the way they are even cheaper. Now that winter roads are not available, the tusk hunters use off-road vehicles to bring in food and fuel, they prepare shelter and storage places for food and diesel,” he continued. The hunting season is from July to October.

Distances in the North are huge, and it is not surprising not to see a single person for a few hundred kilometers; the group’s members communicate by satellite telephones, use truck vehicles as the area is covered with a net of tiny creeks, which the hunters have to cross.

Besides physical challenges, the hunters are facing psychological stress.

“The psychological situation is also extremely tense, as you are among men, among strangers, you know nothing about them, about their past or about what they may do for money, I mean there is no trust, even falling asleep you realize morning may not come,” the hunter said. “If you make a mistake, no doubt the group brings you to responsibility.

The team members may be former prisoners, who had just left the prison, thus smart people should not allow conflicts, should behave quietly.”

Selling tusks as difficult as finding them

Selling the tusks is as difficult as finding them. Sellers and buyers are extremely cautious, as the business is not regulated and risks of being deceived are enormous.

“There are a few methods to look for tusks: you may have a long pole and beat it on the water until a different sound comes – this means there is something there; and this walking in cold weather may be for a very long time. Another option is to use water cannons on the shores until tusks appear in the soil, or sometimes the sea after a storm breaks the shore – and here are tusks sticking out from the shore, then just take a motor boat, go along the shore and watch for them. Some prefer going to the islands, as there are more tusks there than on the mainland shores, but it is extremely dangerous, expensive and time-consuming. You may get stuck there with no way out, as it is very far away,” he said, adding the hunters must have diving suits to explore the bottom. Besides, they need motor boats, off-road and truck vehicles.

“However, finding tusks is only half the deal, selling is also a dilemma. It is a problem to find a buyer, it is a problem to bring tusks to Yakutsk for a further deal, thus the search for a buyer and the deal may take long: the wheeling and dealing, the details, then mutual inquiries, and then all settlements are online, since cash-in-hand transactions are very unscrupulous,” he continued.

Buyers are mostly from Moscow and China. Prices have slumped lately: say, three-four years ago it was 65,000 rubles ($1,140) a kilo, now it is maximum 20,000 ($350), but if a tusk is of a very high quality, then the price could be real good. The average weight is 50 kilos.

Usually, buyers look through tusks very carefully: any crack or any other defect lowers the price, as everything bad is extracted and thrown away.

“The tusks, which are buried in ice, are preserved better, and those in the water are in worse conditions,” he noted. “When hunters find a tusk, they must examine it carefully to see how much they could sell it for.”

Having license good, but not a must

Many hunters have licenses, but there are so-called wild hunters, who rush for tusks illegally. It is much easier to work if you have a license, Popov said, as then the hunters may use planes to transport tusks, while those working illegally bribe the licensees to deliver their cargo.

Deputy Minister of Industry and Geology Vitaly Kalashnikov told TASS that licenses are issued now at regional levels, while control still remains in the realm of the federal authorities’ responsibility.

“Last year, we issued five-year licenses to 75-78 subsoil users, and they received more than 400 areas,” he said. “Those, who did not manage to do it last year, may apply for licenses this year – all the paperwork is ready.”

Yakutia wants control over its own mammoth fauna’s turnover

Yakutia’s parliament has presented to the federal State Duma a bill on changes to the law on the subsoil use, where the main issue is control of the mammoth fauna production.

“Back in 2005, the region had a bill on mammoth fauna, which later was debated by the republic’s prosecution, and then we sent the State Duma suggestions on changing the federal law on the subsoil use, so that the region could have certain powers to regulate the extraction of mammoth fauna. Yakutia is very interested in it, as more than 70% of the fauna’s stock is in the republic, and thus we are hoping for a positive decision from the State Duma,” Yakutia’s Head of the parliament’s Committee on Land, Natural Resources and Ecology Vladimir Prokopyev told TASS.

Damage to paleontology runs into billions of rubles

The science of paleontology suffers the greatest damage. Head of the department for the mammoth fauna studies at the Yakut Academy of Sciences Albert Protopopov told TASS “every year, science loses valuable mammoth fauna artefacts.”

“Financial losses are as high as 1.5 billion rubles ($26.3 million) a year, but here the most important aspect is not financial, but rather scientific. The hunters for tusks throw away bones, skeletons and other artefacts, which are extremely important for the sciences. We have lost so many scientific discoveries because those data were not studied. Sure, there are people, who at their own will bring and give their valuable discoveries to scientists, but they are only a few,” the scientist lamented.

Every year, about 60 tonnes of tusks are exported from Yakutia.

“Trading in tusks is the only way to make ends meet for residents of Yakutia’s north, where most mammoth cemeteries are. On the black market, they sell them for about 25,000 rubles ($439) a kilo,” the scientist continued. “Since the 1990s, this business has remained in the shadows.”

An ideal option would be to have a new law on the mammoth fauna, which would regulate this business, the scientific community says. “This business should be legal, so that we could keep tabs on the amount of exported tusks.”

Presently, scientists, just like commercial companies, have to buy licenses. “This is rather expensive and costly for any budget, as scientific expeditions are financed from the republic’s coffers,” the scientist said. “The locals sell the tusks they find mostly without licenses, and if a law was on the books they could do this business legally.”