Main Image Credit Verkhoyansk Range, Republic of Sakha (Yakutia). Courtesy of Ilya Varlamov/Wikimedia Commons.
A trade in remains of a long-extinct animal gives rise to some very topical environmental debates.
The Russian government tends to dismiss the impact of climate change, arguing climate volatility has always existed. But the effects – increasing numbers of forest fires, flash floods, and melting permafrost in Siberian and Far Eastern regions – are becoming increasingly apparent in Russia. In particular, the receding permafrost has become a salient issue in places like Yakutia, in the Far East of Russia. It has opened up new opportunities for illegal activity that have implications far beyond Yakutia, but which the Russian authorities have so far failed to address.
Thawing permafrost in these Far Eastern regions has for the past few decades begun to expose the bones of prehistoric mammoth tusks, which have been buried in the ice for thousands of years. Although prospecting for the tusks without a licence is illegal, increasing numbers of hunters are searching for them, which are then illegally trafficked across the border and on to Asian markets, particularly China. It is a potentially lucrative enterprise, with profits that far exceed locals’ salaries.
Important questions remain around the relationship between elephant and mammoth tusk trafficking, the classification of the (extinct) woolly mammoth as an endangered species, and the financial impact of tusk prospecting for regions like cash-strapped Yakutia.
A Mammoth Task
There are thought to be around 10 million mammoths in Russia’s permafrost, which covers its Far Eastern and High Northern Arctic regions. But as the permafrost has melted over the past few decades – a process accelerated by climate change – mammoth tusks have begun to emerge from the soil.
With the Arctic thawing at an increasing pace, more and more locals from Yakutia are shifting from traditional trade like hunting or gold and diamond mining to tusking as a form of sustenance. Although mammoth tusks have occasionally been collected from this region since the 17th century, the practice has re-emerged since the Soviet Union’s collapse, as international markets opened up and climate change made the tusks much easier to extract.
While Yakutia covers around 20% of Russia’s entire territory, it has fewer than one million inhabitants. To uncover the tusks, hunters must venture into inhospitable and remote territory, particularly in the northern parts of the region, around Bolshoy Lyakhovsky Island in the Laptev Sea, where many new mammoth tusk discoveries have been made. Salaries in Yakutia are low, averaging around RUB40,000 (£450) a month. But hunters who mine these tusks, known as Siberia’s ‘white gold’, could earn around $30,000 for a single good-quality tusk. On the black market, these hunters can inflate the price of ivory by up to 120 times.
But as the number of easily accessible tusks begins to decline, these expeditions become less fruitful, with hunters spending the entire five-month summer period searching in vain and returning empty handed, as digging for the tusks is only possible during warmer weather. Using equipment and crude water pumps designed for firefighting to shift the mud and dig tunnels, hunters risk drowning or dying in accidents.
In Russia, hunters are permitted to legally collect a certain number of tusks, but this requires an operating licence, compliance with certain environmental regulations, and tax and customs payments if they are exported. Yakutia’s Ministry of Industry and Geology, which is monitoring the acquisition of hunters’ licences for tusk extraction, maintains that more hunters have been willing to purchase them in recent years, from 71 in 2015 to 485 by 2017, indicating that there have been some positive movements towards regulating these activities. However, the black market does not abide by these rules, and international trade remains highly unregulated. The mammoth’s legal status in Russia presents another issue – it is not clear from Russian law whether the tusks should be classified as a mineral, an archaeological find or a scientific discovery, all of which impact on the type of licence required to prospect for them, as well as on the punishment for their illegal trafficking.
Eastern Trafficking Networks
Many of the tusks, collected legally or illegally, are then exported across Russia’s eastern border to destinations such as Hong Kong and China. The ivory is thought to arrive in China across land borders via trucks transporting other consumer goods, and on ships to Hong Kong’s ports. The Chinese authorities appear to have made some attempts to crack down on illegally trafficked tusks. In 2017, Chinese customs officials seized a tonne of tusks from Russia. One hundred mammoth tusks were halted at the Luobei port in Heilongjiang, alongside 37 woolly rhino parts.
International trade in elephant ivory was banned in 1989 by the signatories of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. In 2016, China announced a belated ban on the commercial sale of elephant ivory. But since then, China, alongside Hong Kong and Vietnam, have imported the mammoth ivory from Russia claiming it is a sustainable and more ethical alternative to elephant ivory, as it does not harm live animals. Wildlife conservationists maintain that this trade fuels demand for ivory more generally, and that the mammoth ivory industry is likely to act as a foil for black market dealing in elephant ivory.
The Russian border police has on occasion addressed the problem. In 2013, a large batch of mammoth tusks was detained in the Far Eastern region of Blagoveshchensk, close to the border with China. Locals were seeking buyers in China for more than 70 mammoth tusks they had excavated.
But politically the issue is complicated. The regional governor of Yakutia, Aysen Nikolayev, who was appointed in 2018, has been pushing for the federal government to adopt a law on mammoths to legalise tusk trading in Russia, as well as coordinate the excavation, processing and export of the tusks. Of the 100 tonnes of tusks annually extracted in Yakutia, the regional government has estimated that 30 tonnes are illegally extracted, which is losing the regional budget in Yakutia significant funds. Although this is improving, Yakutia is in debt to Moscow – RUB51.9bn as of April 2020. Out of the 11 regions that constitute the Far Eastern Federal District, Yakutia owes the second highest amount.
Whither the Woolly Mammoth?
It is clear that any attempt to ban tusking outright would invite serious criticism from local residents, and conservationists have argued that a blanket ban would likely drive the industry underground, increasing the likelihood of involvement by organised criminal groups. Instead, some studies have indicated that promoting mammoth ivory prospecting in a sustainable way could reduce the impact on elephant ivory. Mammoth ivory is viewed by its carvers and consumers as a sustainable solution to help eradicate elephant poaching, if managed properly.
One of the key problems remains the categorisation of the mammoths, both internationally and within Russia. In June 2019, Israel attempted to amend this and put forward a proposed change to the CITES Convention, that would classify mammoths as an endangered species, even though it is extinct. If adopted, this bill would force any international trade in ice ivory to be highly regulated through licensing procedures. However, CITES did not accept the amendment, maintaining that mammoths had been extinct for 4,000 years, and that Israel’s statements about the extent of ivory laundering were too anecdotal to provide serious evidence.
Without clear domestic and international legislation to regulate this industry, and as climate change continues to warm many of Russia’s permafrost regions, prospecting and the illegal trafficking of mammoth tusks is only likely to increase. Although there are currently plenty of mammoth tusks buried in the permafrost, they are a finite resource, and the economic loss of illegally trafficked consignments abroad is likely losing the regional budget millions of rubles a year in tax revenue. But as virtually all mammoth ivory originates from Siberian and Far Eastern parts of Russia, if a solution to regulating the market is to be found, Russia must be prepared to be at forefront of those efforts.
Emily Ferris is a Research Fellow in the International Security Studies department at RUSI.
Joanna Hosa is Deputy Director of the Wider Europe Programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors', and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Research Fellow, Russia and Eurasia