The Mammoth Problem With Selling an Extinct Animal’s Ivory

As Arctic permafrost melts and reveals long-buried woolly mammoths, poachers are using their tusks to disguise the illegal sale of elephant ivory.

African elephant; Columbian mammoth skeleton. (Photos: Karl Ammann/Getty Images; Martin Shields/Getty Images)

Aug 31, 2015· 4 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

Despite a near worldwide ban on the sale of elephant ivory, tens of thousands of African and Asian elephants continue to be slaughtered every year for their tusks.

Now, thanks to accelerating climate change, the melting of permafrost in the Arctic could be leading to a rush on another, larger extinct animal’s incisors: the woolly mammoth’s. And that’s not good for elephants.

For the past 20,000 or 30,000 years, woolly mammoth tusks, some weighing as much as 100 pounds, have been preserved and mostly inaccessible in the frozen tundra of northeastern Siberia. But because of longer and hotter summer seasons brought on by rising temperatures, the Arctic stockpile is now reachable—and ivory traders are taking notice.

“It’s really picked up steam in the past three or four years,” said Daniel Fisher, a paleontologist at the University of Michigan. He has been studying woolly mammoths for more than 35 years, working at dig sites in Siberia for the past 15. When he first started, residents weren’t interested in ivory, but now his team often gets to mammoth excavation sites only to find the animals’ tusks missing.

“A decade ago, a mammoth tusk brought in about a tenth of what you can get today for it,” Fisher said. “The people that live in the area know what they can get for it, so they’re taking them.”

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That’s leaving paleontologists with fewer tusks to study to learn about what happened to one of the largest mammals ever to roam the earth, and it’s opening up another avenue for the illegal trafficking of elephant ivory.

To the untrained eye, carved pieces of well-preserved mammoth tusk resemble elephant ivory—a product in high demand in Chinese cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. Because mammoths have been extinct for more than 10,000 years, they aren’t protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, the 1989 treaty that outlawed most trade in elephant ivory.

But even with the ban in place, two controversial decisions have allowed elephant ivory stockpiles seized by officials to be sold at auction for legal trade—49 tons in 1998 and 102 tons in 2008. China and Japan traders made up the bulk of the buyers, and now that ivory is being sold back to the public.

Conservationists see the continuation of the legal ivory market as disastrous in the fight to end elephant poaching, as it gives traffickers an avenue to mix illegal tusks with permitted stocks, and the influx of mammoth tusk on the market could be one more way to mask poached ivory.

As the supply of legal elephant ivory dwindles, Chinese ivory factories and retail stores are purchasing more tusks of the extinct variety, according to a 2014 report commissioned by the nonprofit group Save the Elephants.

That’s driven the price for well-preserved mammoth tusks up from $350 per kilogram in 2010 to $1,900 per kilogram in early 2014, the report states. To put that into perspective, one tusk from a large male mammoth can weigh as much as 40 kilograms—that’s $76,000 for a pair of well-preserved bones—a pretty penny for Russia’s northernmost-dwelling residents.

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“You’re talking about people who live in villages with less than 100 people in the Siberian Arctic, who try to make a living hunting and fishing, all of the sudden out prospecting for ivory,” Fisher said.

So far, the returns for the new prospectors have been fruitful. In 2013, China imported 31 tons of mammoth tusks, compared with nine tons in 2003—93 percent of which was sourced from Russia.

But the mammoth boom has been a bust for elephants. Conservationists believe mammoth tusks are just one more way for traffickers to disguise illegal stock in elephant ivory.

“You can sell a mammoth tusk and transport it without any proof of documentation, so you can import and export it very easily,” said Iris Ho, wildlife program manager at Humane Society International. “So sellers will ship both elephant and mammoth tusks in the same containers to try and smuggle illegal ivory in with the legal mammoth tusks.”

In retail shops in Shanghai and Beijing, mammoth and elephant ivory are sold side by side—and sometimes in place of each other.

Mayu Mishina, marketing manager for the African Wildlife Foundation’s Washington, D.C., office, said China’s ivory retail shops require identification cards for every elephant ivory piece sold to show that it’s legal. “But investigators have found that sometimes the photos on the cards don’t always match the ivory piece being sold,” Mishina said. “That may point to ivory having been sold and cards being kept by the shop owner for reuse.”

In those same stores, mammoth ivory products don’t require ID cards at all—so elephant ivory products could be sold under the guise of mammoth ivory, Mishina said.

The only way to tell the difference between elephant and mammoth tusks is to look at a cross section of the tusk. But that isn’t so easy to see when looking at a carved piece, says Sam Wasser, a conservation biologist at the University of Washington. Wasser studies DNA samples of illegal elephant ivory seizures to determine where the poached elephants originated.

“We just recently had a seizure come in, and when we tested it, it ended up being hippo ivory,” he said. “It just shows that deciphering where, exactly, these ivory pieces are coming from is hard. Some people are getting away with disguising illegal ivory as mammoth ivory.”

Does that mean there should be a full ban on the trade of mammoth ivory?

Wasser isn’t so sure. “It’s a tough question because the animals are already dead, but their tusks are being used to disguise illegal trade that’s endangering elephants,” he said. “Banning the sale of one species to save another is problematic.”

Officials in New York and New Jersey have already enacted ivory bans that include mammoth tusks, said Sara Marinello, director of government affairs for the Wildlife Conservation Society. California is considering similar legislation.

“We have to work to shut down the legal market if it can help stop the illegal killing,” Marinello said.

For Fisher and his partners at Russia’s North-Eastern Federal University, tundra tomb raiding isn’t an immediate threat to the supply of mammoth tusks left to study. But he stressed that the stockpile is finite.

“Look, they’re like diamonds,” he said. “There are a lot of them—nobody knows for sure how many—and they are still rare and incredibly valuable.” Tusks tell researchers the story of the animal—its size, life span, health, and more.

“The more tusks we have to research, the more we can gain an understanding about these animals and learn about what caused their demise,” Fisher said. “The tusks are an important piece of that puzzle.”