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.
On condition that he not reveal names or exact locations, RFE/RL photographer Amos Chapple gained exclusive access to one site where between bouts of vodka-fueled chaos and days spent evading police patrols, teams of men are using illegal new methods in the hunt for what remains of Siberia's lost giants.
The treasure hunt began a few years ago when word spread of the fantastic sums paid for mammoth tusks by visiting "agents."
It's five hours by boat from the nearest town to this bend in a river where fishermen first spotted strange bones curling out of the ground. THE MAMMOTH STEPPE
"Mammoth Steppe" was the woolly mammoth's natural habitat between 12,000 and 100,000 years ago, during the so-called glacial maximum.
Source: NASA, Joshua L. Hood
Soon the easy pickings were gone and new methods were devised to extract Siberia’s "white gold." Where tuskers once used sharpened sticks to prod at the ground, today water pumps are the tool of choice. The powerful pumps, designed for firefighting, fill the valley with exhaust smoke as they draw water from the river... ...to nozzles that the prospectors blast straight at the landscape. The density of animal remains at this site suggests it was once a swamp or bog that swallowed up prehistoric animals. Some tuskers use the excavating power of the pressurized water to bore deep underground. This tunnel runs for over 60 meters. Others carve enormous caverns under the frozen ground. And some gouge out entire hillsides… ...in the hope of striking it rich. Permafrost has none of the soft crunch its name suggests. Like a great, dirty iceberg, this sheet of ice lies just beneath the surface across the whole Yakutia region. In warm soil, bones would rot away within a decade. But tusks and bones like this one can survive tens of thousands of years once locked into the permafrost.
This 65-kilogram tusk, photographed a moment after it was plucked from the permafrost, was sold for $34,000. The two men who found it unearthed three more in just over a week, including one weighing 72 kilograms.
The triumphant tuskers, one flashing the "cash" gesture. Both avoided revealing exact amounts, but they likely earned around $100,000 cash in eight days. In their hometown, where the average salary is less than $500 per month, elusive “agents” pay cash for fresh tusks. This derelict building was gutted by fire the day we left for the expedition. In status-mad China, mammoth ivory appears to be subject to an economic phenomenon whereby high prices drive increased demand, thus further raising prices. Once sculpted by a master carver, tusks like this pair on display in Hong Kong regularly sell for more than $1 million each. Photo: Alex Hofford (epa) In addition to the mammoth, another fantastical beast promises a fortune to a lucky few. This skull, helping to prop up a kettle, belongs to the long-extinct woolly rhinoceros. Another rhino skull, feeling the sun on its snout for the first time in at least 11,000 years. The man who found it says that “when you find a skull, the horn is usually 15 or 20 meters away.” This woolly rhinoceros horn will probably end up in Vietnam and be ground into powder, then marketed as medicine. The 2.4-kilogram horn was sold to an agent for $14,000. Held in the hand, the horn squelches like soggy driftwood and smells of unwashed dog. The market for powdered rhino horn in Vietnam is partly due to a belief it can cure cancer. By the time it reaches Vietnam, the horn will be worth more than its weight in gold. But for most tuskers, a whole summer of labor in the gluey mud will end up losing them money. As the pumps roar through gasoline (one brigade went through five tons of it in three weeks) most of the prospectors will turn up only “worthless” bones like these. Dr. Valery Platnikov, a paleontologist familiar with this tusking site, estimates that “only around 20-30 percent [of tuskers] will find something significant enough to make a profit. It’s very sad.... A lot of these guys have taken out bank loans to pay for these expeditions.” To keep his expedition cheap, this young tusker converted the engine from a Soviet-era Buran snowmobile into a water pump. Another Buran engine in its second life as a water pump. When autumn blizzards begin, it will be returned to the town and refitted into its snowmobile.
Most men here will spend the entire summer away from home and family.
In the gloom of their tents, the tuskers relax with card games or share a phone to watch short viral videos or porn. This tusker penned letters to his wife that he passed on to men heading back to the town. He wrote on whatever he could find, in this case a toilet-paper wrapper. This joint of reindeer is a rare treat. Most meals are canned beef and noodles. Two of the tuskers spoke of eating dog “when we have to.... The flavor is like bacon." Mosquitoes are a near constant plague. Only the coldest mornings offer an hour or two of relief. On warm days, some of the men wear clothes more suited to beekeeping than hard labor. And when the alcohol comes out, all hell breaks loose. Returning from a resupply run to town, these tuskers have made it halfway back to camp staggering drunk. But soon after this picture was taken, the trip took a turn for the worse. Near a spot where two prospectors drowned last year, the men crashed their boat at speed. A 3 a.m. rescue mission (the sun never sets during summers here) found them passed out in a boat full of waterlogged equipment. Both men were swarmed by mosquitoes; one was desperate for a cigarette lighter. The following day the drinking continues apace. Boozy camaraderie is quickly exhausted and the atmosphere turns ugly. One tusker picks up a metal bar and slams it onto a woodpile before turning on me. He pauses for a moment before swiping it above my head. As I back out of the camp, he collapses onto a bench, calling, “Where’s the dog?!”
Ravaged landscape is the obvious result of the tusk hunters’ methods, but the impact on Yakutia’s waterways is far-reaching.
At the end of the valley, this stream, thick with runoff from the tuskers' hoses, runs straight into the river. In a region famed for its fish, the men working this site now don’t bother to take fishing rods. As rumor spreads of an imminent “greenie” patrol -- a boat with environmental-protection officers accompanied by police -- the valley falls silent and the men melt into the bush. This watchman, on a clifftop above the river, is speaking into a walkie-talkie as he tracks an unidentified boat passing the site. Fines for illegal tusk hunting are only $45. But after a tusker is caught three times, serious charges can be laid. A DESTRUCTIVE PROCESS
Tuskers siphon water from nearby rivers and blast it into the permafrost, boring their way to riches.
Wojtek Grojec, Carlos Coelho
One tusker told me, “I know it’s bad, but what can I do? No work, lots of kids.” But the number of tuskers across the Yakutia region, which is eight times the size of Germany, is increasing every year. (There were three sites along a 120-kilometer stretch of this river alone.) And as more stories of instant, spectacular wealth filter back to the towns, that trend is likely to continue. Photography and text by Amos Chapple Produced by Wojtek Grojec 2016 © RADIO FREE EUROPE/RADIO LIBERTY, INC.