Mammoth hunting: business or poaching?
For 'horns' to the hell of the permafrost15 may 2023
In a few years, mammoth hunting in Yakutia has transformed from an exotic business located in the 'grey zone' of legislation into one of the respectable but not yet fully established, spheres of the Arctic economy. In 2021 alone, the legal production of the mammoth tusk was 160 tons, an increase of 61% over the previous two years, according to the Sakha Ministry of Industry and Geology. During this time, mandatory certification of 'white gold hunters' and their production, as well as a system for monitoring the sale of products, has emerged. The regional government is also investing in encouraging tusk processing in Yakutia. It plans to increase volumes to 4 tons a year and eventually process as much as it manages to extract.
Fossilised teeth of Arctic elephants
According to Russian scientists, about 80% of the world's mammoths are buried in the permafrost of Yakutia, amounting to about 500,000 tons of bones. The main finds are made in the territories of Ust-Yansky, Abyysky, Anabarsky, Verkhoyansky, Bulunsky, Allaikhovsky, Nizhnekolymsky, Srednekolymsky, Verkhnekolymsky and Oleneksky districts. Tusks can be found at the bottom and banks of rivers, lakes, bogs; in ravines and tundra. Finding them takes a lot of time and effort, and special equipment may also be needed. Some mammoth hunters have to scuba dive to the bottom of muddy streams with water that does not exceed 10°C. Divers can make up to five dives in one day, lasting about an hour, without finding a whole piece of tusk. Other bones of ancient megafauna are of very low value and are usually discarded back into the water. Hunters carefully guard the 'deposits' of mammoth tusks, but even there they are seldom lucky. Other 'prospectors,' who lack technical sophistication, usually search for 'natural' outcrops of bone, undertaking expeditions many hundreds of kilometres deep into the tundra. It was for them that the state certification of the fishery was developed to allow the extraction and sale of the tusks. The average cost of 1 kg of the top-grade tusk is around RUB 35,000. Considering that one tusk weighs about 80 kg, a lucky find can fetch up to RUB 2.8 mn. The locals call the tusks 'horns.'
Until recently, mammoth tusks were in the 'grey zone' of the law 'On Subsoil.' It simply did not describe their extraction and status, and hence there was no regulation of their commercialisation. Then amendments were made to allow the collection of mammoth fauna as a traditional livelihood of indigenous peoples of the North.
In 2022, there were 739 tusk collection licences registered in the Sakha Republic belonging to 113 subsoil users.
However, the legal framework needs further elaboration, as there are a number of conflicting clauses. For example, the law 'On Import and Export of Cultural Property' defines mammoth tusks as cultural property, while the law 'On Subsoil' defines them as minerals, causing administrative difficulties. The procedure for labelling and selling tusks, certification of business entities, etc., is also being developed. At the end of last year, for example, Evgeny Petrov, head of the Federal Subsoil Resources Management Agency, proposed extending the licence to mine mammoth tusks from one to five years. According to him, the annual visits of subsoil users to Yakutsk hit the pockets of entrepreneurs very hard, which may provoke their outflow into the shadow segment. However, judging by the growing volume of legal tusk extraction and sales, the joint work of the Sakha Republic government and the federal authorities is bearing fruit, and the market is becoming more civilised.
Pros and cons of the mammoth business
Government regulation of mammoth tusk mining is not only important in terms of tax collection, controlling financial flows and stimulating employment in remote parts of the country. Illegal mammoth tusk mining causes considerable damage to nature, as it is often carried out with motor pumps in protected areas. Instead of excavating or diving into river beds, the poachers erode the permafrost with directed water jets, thus extracting the tusks. This is causing irreparable damage to the tundra, turning areas into bogs and stimulating the thawing of permafrost. According to Il Tumen deputy Sakhamin Afanasyev, there is no licence for this kind of mining. He proposes expanding market regulation to include specific liability clauses in the Code on Administrative Offences for the use of 'barbaric' mammoth tusk prospecting methods.
Also, some examples of tusks have scientific value and can be classified as cultural heritage objects, which precludes their commercial sale. In the spring of 2023, two high-profile cases broke out one after the other—the detention of a foreign citizen with mammoth tusks in her luggage at Pulkovo airport in St. Petersburg and, a little earlier, the prevention of the export of almost a ton of raw materials through Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport. The mammoth tusks have been sent for state examination and the individuals involved in the case are being investigated. The Russian authorities are actively combating mammoth tusk smuggling while creating clear and legal channels for the sale of the mined material. Full legalisation of fishing and clear 'rules of the game' is a challenge that is being tackled right now.