Russian pirates are reaching back in time to cash in on the world’s insatiable demand for rare ivory, digging through Siberia to collect the tusks of mammoths. The work is dangerous and illegal, they are evading police patrols and search the tundra to find remains of the prehistoric animals that can make them millionaires.
The shaggy giants that roamed northern Siberia during the late Pleistocene epoch died off about 10,000 years ago, though isolated populations lingered on islands to the north and east, the last dying out some 3,700 years ago.
Unlike the elephant tusks, the mammoth ivory trade is legal and lucrative, leading to exponential growth in recent decades. Used for jewelry, Asian cures and black market, the mammoth tusks are white gold for these men from Yakutsk.
Carved by master carvers some of them worth even $1 million dollars.
This rush on mammoth ivory is luring a fresh breed of miner – the tusker – into the Russian wilderness and creating millionaires in some of the poorest villages of Siberia.
The hunters dig deep into the Siberian permafrost to find ivory from woolly mammoths, but often find bones of little or no value. For example, another fantastical beast promises a fortune to a lucky few. Some skulls, helping to prop up a kettle, belongs to the long-extinct woolly rhinoceros.
The illegal wildlife trade, including the sale of exotic animals and the parts of endangered species, has exploded in recent years to become a massive black market worth about $20 billion a year. Fueled by booming Asian economies and organized crime the trade is threatening also some of the world’s rarest and most charismatic species like tigers and even pangolins.
But the growth of the trade is best exemplified by the demand for rhino horn, which is falsely believed to have medicinal and psychoactive properties.
The market for powdered rhino horn in Vietnam is partly due to a belief it can cure cancer. By the time it reaches Vietnam, the horns found in Russian permafrost will be worth more than its weight in gold.
Photographer Amos Chapple spent three weeks documenting the harsh, vodka-soaked world of the men who mine for mammoths in the Russian wilderness, for Radio Free Europe.
Chapple said in the area he visited, which he promised not to reveal, there were about 50-60 tuskers searching for mammoth remains on any given day. The men live in tents in the forest and would often spend the entire summer away from their family.
He gained access after paying a group to take him into the area, but said even then he received a hostile reception.
Hunters use high-pressure hoses powered by smokey generators to excavate the fossils – a method that is ruining the environment.
The river there ran like hot chocolate and the fish were gone. If this method of extracting the tusks continues to spread that ecosystem is screwed.
The density of animal remains at this sites suggests it was once a swamp or bog that swallowed up the prehistoric animals.
But for most tuskers, a whole summer of labor in the gluey mud will end up losing them money. Dr. Valery Platnikov, a paleontologist familiar with this hunting methods, estimates that “only around 20-30 percent of these men will find something significant enough to make a profit.
Still, the number of tuskers across the Yakutia region, which is eight times the size of Germany, is increasing every year this year being spotted more then 3 sites along 100 km area.