Mammoth tusk mining in the Arctic, and the price of ‘ethical ivory’

Mammoth tusk mining in the Arctic, and the price of ‘ethical ivory’

Zoe Kean

Kim Akerman plucks a small, creamy hand-carved figurine from a handmade box resting on his kitchen table.

The little mammoth is made out of the tusk from a real woolly mammoth that died eons ago.

Although carved recently, the piece of ivory with its striking amber eyes has the feel of something ancient.

Kim is an artist, anthropologist and collector, who has been carving since he was a teenager in the 1960s.

Even then he was fascinated with the Ice Age.

One of the first pieces he ever created was a palm-length carving of a woman made out of whale tooth in the style of Venus figurines made by the Ice Age artists in Eurasia.

Kim Akerman holding carvings
Kim Akerman, 74, has been carving since he was a teenager.(Supplied: Zoe Kean)

The ivory mammoth is one of many pieces created out of a large chunk of tusk that travelled through time and space to make it to his kitchen table in suburban Hobart.

Kim acquired the ivory a few decades ago when he was working for the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.

Someone offered to sell the tusk to the museum, but the piece was large and not suited to the collection, so the institution passed on the offer. 

But Kim and his colleague could not turn down the opportunity to own ancient ivory, so they pooled their money and purchased it. They cut off a small, more manageable piece for the museum, and kept the rest for their art.

Close up of carving tools.
Kim carved the handles for his tools from whale bone.(Supplied: Zoe Kean)

Kim is unsure of the mammoth ivory’s provenance, but suspects the seller may have picked up the tusk on a business trip to Siberia.

While it seems odd for carvings made from the tusk of an ancient Ice Age animal to end up in Hobart, the mystique of mammoths has caused people to mine and trade their remains for millennia.

Mammoth rush as north melts

Most mammoth tusks are mined from frozen ground, or permafrost, in the Arctic.

The best-preserved specimens are found in far northern Yakutia — also known as Sakha — in Siberia.

In the years since Kim acquired his piece of tusk,  swathes of permafrost in the region have thawed as the world has warmed.

As the ground melts, the remains of the ancient beasts are easier to prise from their icy graves. This has created a “mammoth rush” over the past decade, explains Zara Bending of the Centre for Environmental Law of Macquarie University.

Map of Sakha or Yakutia
Yakutia — or Sakha — is a republic in north-east Russia covering more than 3 million square kilometres of land.(Wikimedia Commons: Stasyah117)

An estimated 100 tonnes of mammoth tusk are now thought to be exported from Yakutia each year, according to local media.

Some tusks are sold in Russia, but most are exported around the world with major markets in China, Vietnam, and the United States.

The rush was further fuelled by domestic bans on the sale of elephant ivory in the United States and China in 2016 and 2017.

Mammoth ivory is sold to conscious consumers as “ethical ivory”, even adorning former US first lady Michelle Obama.

High risks, big money

Mammoth mining is dangerous, remote, all male and often illegal, explains anthropologist Prokopieva Aleksandra from the Russian Academy of Sciences.

“Currently, mining is mainly carried out by private individuals in the form of groups with mining licenses,” Ms Aleksandra says.

a view of the Duvanny Yar from the banks of the Kolyma River, showing melting permafrost
The pace of permafrost thawing in Siberia is increasing as the planet warms.(Reuters: Maxim Shemetov)

Many of the miners operate illegally, or on edges of illegality, but “the state is increasingly striving to control this process,” she says.

Mining parties will set up camp in mammoth-rich areas on the Arctic coast and rivers and travel in detachments to mine sites.

Locations are closely guarded, and only trusted people are invited to hunt for carcasses. 

“[Miners] don’t just take random people,” she says.

Sometimes tusks can be collected by walking along a melt line, and occasionally tusk hunters will use dive equipment to extract mammoths.

Russian law stipulates that only mammoth tusks that have come to the surface, usually via permafrost melting, can be harvested.

In reality, most miners hurry this process along by pumping water through high-pressure hoses to blast away the permafrost, creating vast tunnels.

man spraying mud cliff with water
Water is blasted into the permafrost to expose the remains of mammoths.(Amos Chapple/Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty)

It’s low tech, but effective.

From the water blasting and melting, Ice Age creatures appear. Skulls and tusks abound, but these miners also unearth more grizzly remains: occasionally mummified animals emerge with flesh, blood, and hair preserved.

But the process also accelerates permafrost loss, pollutes rivers with muck, and tunnel collapse is an ever-present danger.

Once extracted, tusks are moved on and sold to a global market.

Just like gold rushes of old, some miners strike rich, but many invest huge amounts of money and risk their lives only to return home empty-handed.

“This is associated with both high risks and big money,” Ms Aleksandra says.

man with a mammoth tusk
Some mammoth hunters strike it rich, others leave empty handed.(Amos Chapple/Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty)

Can extinct mammoths save living elephants?

Although mammoth ivory is marketed as an ethical alternative to killing elephants for their tusks, not everyone is convinced this works in practice.

There is concern that elephant ivory could be passed off as mammoth, explains Ms Bending.

In 2018, this practice drove Israel to attempt to have mammoth ivory listed on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a convention limiting the international trade of listed plants and animals.

Israel withdrew its proposal as the CITES committee was not convinced there was enough evidence to confirm the sale of mammoth ivory provided the opportunity for elephant ivory laundering.

The issue is due to be re-examined after further research in November 2022 at CITES CoP 19.

man standing near remains of woolly mammoth
Palaeontologist Valery Plotnikov stands near mammoth remains that have been confiscated from illegal collectors.(Getty Images: Mladen Antonov/AFP)

Under Russian law, tusks need to be accredited as genuine mammoth and not elephant.

At the beginning of last year, the government banned the export of tusks more than 3 metres long or weighing over 100 kilograms.

The size regulations were introduced to preserve the tusks’ cultural and scientific value.

But it’s estimated a third of the mammoth tusk trade is illegal, and the new regulations may push even more of the trade into the shadow economy, Ms Bending says.

“You’re potentially making an opportunity for crime to move in, it’s an unknown calculus at this point,” she says.

To get around size limits, tusks may be further cut up or made into beads before export.

Whole mammoth tusks are very easy to tell apart from elephant tusks, but small pieces are hard to distinguish.

Cutting large tusks may muddy the water in the ivory market, making it easier to launder elephant ivory.

Few ways for Indigenous people to earn money 

Employment and profit are hard to come by in the far north of Russia, with both Ms Bending and Ms Aleksandra emphasising that mammoth mining brings money to communities who need it.

However, it’s often not the miners who reap the biggest rewards, but middlemen who export the tusks, Ms Bending says.

When trade is illegal, the chance of miners being exploited by middlemen increases.

“Today, the extraction of mammoth tusk is becoming an acute issue, as it affects the spheres of the shadow economy, land relations and the bowels of the Earth,” Ms Aleksandra says.

Miners and the environment may be more protected if mammoth mining were included in Russia’s official list of Indigenous crafts or trades, such as hunting and fishing, she suggests.

“This entitles Indigenous peoples to benefits, compensations, and advantages in matters of land use,” she says.

“If the tusk mining had been included in this list, it might have been easier for Indigenous peoples to start doing this legally and not allowing outsiders to prey [on Indigenous miners].

“As a native of Yakutia, I can say that at the moment, this is at least some opportunity to earn money in the Far North.”

An ancient tradition

Ancient ivory combs and spoons in museum exhibition
People in the region have been carving objects out of mammoth ivory for thousands of years. (Wikimedia Commons: Daderot)

The fates of mammoths and humans have been intertwined in Yakutia since before the mammoth went extinct in the region about 10,000 years ago.

For carver Kim, this is part of the intrigue.

“People stood up against them and harvested them and their remains,” he muses.

Stories of the behemoths have survived in the Yakutian oral tradition.

And mammoth artefacts are common in the archaeological record, Ms Aleksandra says.

shield carved from mammoth ivory next to illustration showing pattern of carving
This shield carved from mammoth ivory dates back to the Iron Age.(Supplied: Prokopieva Aleksandra)

Evidence of tusks being mined stretches back to the Mesolithic (8000BC-2700BC).

“In the Bronze and Iron Ages, armour, shields, ritual calendars, and combs for combing plant fibres were made from [mammoth] tusks,” she says.

Export of mammoth tusk products increased soon after Yakutia was colonised by Russia in the 17th century.

By the late 19th century, the first mammoth rush was on, and curved tusks filled the warehouses on London docks.

black and white image of two men and woolly mammoth remains
Excavation of woolly mammoth remains from Siberia in 1902.(Getty Images: Sovfoto/Universal Images Group)

Scientists and miners in an unlikely alliance

Mammoth tusks run the risk of being lost to science when they are exported.

The mining process can also damage archaeological sites, depriving anthropologists like Ms Aleksandra the chance to study Ice Age humans.

However, tusk hunters and scientists have formed an unlikely alliance.

Miners are responsible for most of the significant scientific finds to come out of the Siberian permafrost in recent years, according to Albert Protopopov, whose team at the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia) studies the ancient Ice Age animals.

Man sitting on ground
Scientists such as Professor Albert Protopopov work with miners to recover mammoth remains.(Supplied: Albert Protopopov)

When Professor Protopopov gets word of a significant find from miners, he, or his colleagues, will travel to the site by plane, all-terrain vehicle or — when funds allow — helicopter.

It is then their turn to use water pumps to uncover the find.

“All large finds sooner or later get to us. But often small finds like animal skulls are often sold. This is sad,” he says.

Later this year, miners and scientists will meet at the International Mammoth Forum in Yakutia to discuss how they can better work together.

Resurrection of the mammoth

Despite being extinct for thousands of years, woolly mammoths grip our imagination.

“I think dinosaurs are interesting, but [mammoth remains] are basically flesh, bone, blood and hair, so they connect a bit more,” Kim says.

The very flesh and bone that make mammoths so tangible to Kim may lead to their resurrection via advanced genetic technology.

Woolly mammoth mummy
Yuka is the best preserved mammoth carcass ever found.(Wikimedia: Cyclonaut)

In 2010, tusk hunters found “Yuka”, a young mammoth that died nearly 30,000 years ago.

Yuka’s cells were so well preserved that researchers in Japan were able to cajole them into the early stages of cell division, Professor Protopopov explains.

While they could not complete the process, he hopes more preserved mammoth mummies like Yuka will be found.

“But [next time] we will be better prepared for cell preservation. We have the experience we need.”

When this happens, researchers will be one step closer to using ancient DNA to resurrect the woolly mammoth.

For now though, when Kim carves mammoth tusk, he reflects on what the animal was like when it was alive.

“You are sort of paying homage to the animal itself, it lives in another form,” he says.

mammoth and Venus figurines in palms of a man's hands
Kim has carved many figurines over the years, including his first ever piece (right) from a whale tooth.(Supplied: Zoe Kean)

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