CRF Blog

Tracking Mammoths

by Bill Hayes

In Tracking Mammoths, National Geographic looks at the search for the tusks of long-extinct mammoths in Siberia.

As primitive as it may seem, the tusk rush is driven not by ancient callings but by powerful modern forces: the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ensuing frenzy of frontier capitalism, the international ban on trading elephant ivory and the search for alternatives, even the advent of global warming. Rising temperatures helped seal the mammoths’ fate near the end of the last ice age by shrinking and drowning their grassland habitats, leaving herds stranded on the isolated islands where Gorokhov now hunts. Today the thawing and erosion of the mammoth’s permafrost graveyard — and the rush of tusk hunters — are helping bring them back. Long after the first largely intact specimens were pulled out of the Siberian tundra in the 1800s, the drumbeat of discoveries is quickening. In September 2012 an 11-year-old boy on Russia’s Taymyr Peninsula stumbled upon a well-preserved adolescent mammoth, one of its ancient limbs sticking out of the half-frozen sediment.

Nothing, however, has fueled the mammoth tusk trade more than the rise of China, which has an ivory-carving tradition going back thousands of years. Nearly 90 percent of all mammoth tusks hauled out of Siberia — estimated at more than 60 tons a year, though the actual figure may be higher — end up in China, where legions of the newly rich are entranced by ivory. The spike in demand has worried some scientists, who lament the loss of valuable data; like the trunk of a tree, a tusk contains clues about diet, climate, and the environment. Even Yakutiyans wonder how quickly this nonrenewable resource will be depleted. Millions of mammoth tusks, perhaps more, are still locked in Siberia’s permafrost, but already they’re becoming harder to find. [more]