The Mammoth Pirates
August 25, 2016 8:36 AM   Subscribe

In Russia's Arctic north, a new kind of gold rush is under way: With the sale of elephant tusks under close scrutiny, “ethical ivory” from the extinct woolly mammoth is now feeding an insatiable market in China. This rush on mammoth ivory is luring a fresh breed of miner – the tusker – into the Russian wilderness and creating dollar millionaires in some of the poorest villages of Siberia. posted by mandolin conspiracy (16 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I know I am supposed to be horrified by the environmental damage and social depravity of the whole situation (and I am!) . . . but that picture of the mosquito covered feet just makes me itch all over.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 8:52 AM on August 25, 2016 [4 favorites]

Amazing and horrifying. Reminds me of gold-mining in California back in the day.

What I don't get about the rhinoceros horn is why people don't just grind up beetles or something and sell it as rhino horn. Who's going to know? It's an entirely unregulated market and there's no discernible effect of the powder, so...
posted by suelac at 9:04 AM on August 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

Maybe it burns as a different color flame? I should look into growing bones outside of the body.
posted by I-baLL at 9:05 AM on August 25, 2016

Well, at least the the end of humanity is super entertaining
posted by The Whelk at 9:11 AM on August 25, 2016 [9 favorites]

Be thankful they didn't have gasoline engines in 1849.
posted by bukvich at 9:20 AM on August 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

Tulip mania for the Anthropocene!
Humanity you are wonderful!
posted by kokaku at 9:27 AM on August 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

“ ‘I know it’s bad, but what can I do? No work, lots of kids.’ ”

That seems to pretty much sum it up. I hope that any environmental crackdown is paired with economic relief for these people who clearly want and need work that pays a living wage. But I can't imagine it will be.
posted by mr. manager at 9:29 AM on August 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

Apparently, the 19th century was so awesome for everybody, we've decided to do it all over again.

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold

posted by TheWhiteSkull at 9:32 AM on August 25, 2016 [6 favorites]

Archeological scrappers!
posted by clavdivs at 9:35 AM on August 25, 2016

Five years ago, I was:

...[S]warmed by mosquitoes [....] desperate for a cigarette lighter.

Other than sharing a phone for porn (although, idk what the guys did, honestly) this looks like scenes from my archaeological expeditions in Russia. We were slightly south, but not by much. It is tough.
posted by tippy at 10:02 AM on August 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Apparently, the 19th century was so awesome for everybody, we've decided to do it all over again
Aside from cellphones and Adidas, one might say they never stopped "doing" the 19th century in these remote parts of Russia.
posted by tippy at 10:05 AM on August 25, 2016 [5 favorites]

I recently wrote an article about a similar issue on the other side of the Bering Strait. Only part is available online - here's more:

“It’s a social thing,” says cultural anthropologist Julie Hollowell, who began studying the antique ivory market in 1995. Friends and extended families gather at favorite spots to dig together in their spare time. People wear buttons that say “I Dig,” and the subject even appears in local school lessons.

Almost anything made from ivory and bone is considered valuable, as are any unworked raw materials. (Items made from leather, wood, stone, or pottery, which would be valuable to archaeologists, are set aside as unsellable.) Islanders travel to the mainland to sell their finds to dealers, while some dealers come to St Lawrence in person to buy. Dealers sell raw materials by the pound to artisans, who work it into objects like knife handles and jewelry. Some dealers have set up workshops in Asia, which produce carved items that are then imported back to Alaska to compete with native products. Worked artifacts are sold to tourists and collectors, either in person or online.

The values of the artifacts vary greatly. Harpoon heads sell for $35, while two-inch effigies can fetch $700. Every change of hands brings a 50 to 100 percent markup, Hollowell says. Finding an exceptional artifact can be like hitting the lottery. In 2013, a carved ivory head excavated on a small island off St. Lawrence sold for a record $197,000 at Bonham’s auction in San Francisco. All of this makes for what, according to Hollowell, may be one of the most extensive legal markets for archaeological artifacts in the world, estimated at $1.5 million in the early 2000s. Demand for the material itself is so great that at times, unworked bone and ivory—although not of archaeological value—have been shipped off the island by the ton.

Part of the demand comes from international restrictions on the sale of ivory, which have made archaeological sources one of the few legal avenues to obtain it. Conservation laws have also had an unintended side effect: the Marine Mammal Protection Act forbid the sale of unworked ivory harvested after 1972, cutting off non-native artisans from supplies of new raw materials.


Most people on St. Lawrence Island see artifact digging as an acceptable source of income, says Chris Koonooka, a high school teacher at the Gambell School. “There’s no other way to raise money in such a short time,” he says, to provide for one’s family and buy the necessities of island life, such as guns, ATVs, and boats. In a way, Hollowell says, islanders view the artifacts as gifts from their ancestors, handed down over the centuries almost like an inheritance. “If we don’t do it, someone else will,” says Koonooka, who went digging with his family as a child. Islanders occasionally call what they do “subsistence digging,” a commercial parallel to other subsistence activities.

posted by gottabefunky at 10:52 AM on August 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Aside from cellphones and Adidas, one might say they never stopped "doing" the 19th century in these remote parts of Russia

Or, if you happen to be in one of the parts of Siberia the Old Believers fled to, they never really stopped doing the 17th century.
posted by Copronymus at 11:00 AM on August 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

I was on a trip to a remote area of Alaska (which is much of Alaska) where we found the outer sheath of a mastadon tusk lying on a beach. It wasn't the whole sheath, just a one foot section or so, but it was still a pretty crazy thing to find. I can see why most of the environmental issues are met with a shrug -- the rural areas of Alaska and Russia are so vast that you get a sense of how a lot of people on the early American frontier thought they could never run out of lumber, could never run out of buffalo, etc.
posted by craven_morhead at 11:02 AM on August 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Selling "ethical" ivory and horn from already-extinct species simply feeds the same voracious market that has pushed elephants and rhinos to the brink, and the supply is not renewable. Sooner or later the supply will run low. We already see elephant ivory being "laundered" as mastodon, and this will become more common. Even if we eventually learn to clone an infinitely renewable supply of artificial ivory and horn, the lesson of artificial gems shows that people will still demand the "natural" material. Probably the only thing that will save the elephants, rhinos and other animals (e.g. tigers) is to close the trade down entirely.

I'm not convinced that will happen, so here's a pre-emptive . for the elephants, and . one for the rhinos.
posted by Autumn Leaf at 4:53 PM on August 25, 2016 [4 favorites]

The whole sad business of ivory and horn is so damaging to animals we have in there here and now. Poaching and trophy hunting alike just need to end. So does mammoth tusk hunting.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 8:05 PM on August 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

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