Mammoth tusks are serving as a cover for illegal traffic in modern day elephant ivory

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Carol Hills: Prices may be crashing on Chinas stock markets, but ivory is still fetching top prices. Its illegal to sell elephant ivory, so some traders are turning, instead, to ivory recovered from wooly mammoths. Yes, there really were wooly mammoths and their tusks have been preserved in the frozen tundra of northern Siberia for thousands of years. Some have called the trade in these tusks the new “ivory rush.” Dan Fisher is a scientist at the Museum of Paleontology at the University of Michigan. Professor Fisher, why is there so much wooly mammoth ivory coming on the global market now?


Dan Fisher: Well, its due to a combination of factors. One certainly is simply the cost that ivory is fetching and the fact that even this 10,000-30,000-year-old ivory from the permafrost is in almost as good a condition as the ivory of modern-day elephants. And so, that cost factor alone would send people into the remote regions of Siberia to collect whatever they could. Another factor is that with global warming, theres especially accentuated climate change going on in the Arctic. The melting season is much longer and more vigorous, and more specimens are coming to the surface.


Hills: Have you seen firsthand how the melting permafrost exposes these wooly mammoths in northern Siberia?


Fisher: Yes, over many years. Ive been doing fieldwork in Siberia for about 15 years in faraway, sort of outback, as it were, of the Siberian north. Weve prospected hill slopes, riverbanks, along the coastline, wherever theres erosion, wherever theres melting of the permafrost; they're absolutely up there.


Hills: Have you ever had the experience where youre out there as a scientist trying to find these skeletal remains and you run into a mammoth tusk dealer?


Fisher: Yes, a number of times.


Hills: Are the sites protected at all?


Fisher: The sites, unfortunately, are not protected. In almost all cases, unfortunately, the commercial interests trump the scientific or the cultural interests.


Hills: Now, Ive read that most of these mammoth tusks come from northern Siberia and their destination is almost exclusively China, and Ive also read that some of these Chinese dealers, the ivory traders, are passing off illegal elephant tusks as mammoth ivory to avoid export controls. Is it easy to tell the difference between an elephant tusk and a 10,000-year-old mammoth ivory tusk?


Fisher: You have to have either access to the whole tusk, and in those cases sometimes its curvature or size will tell you that its mammoth. But to really be analytical about it, you need to cut a bit of the tusk and look at a transverse cross section to look at some of the internal structural features of the ivory. And with that, yes, its possible to tell the difference. Even someone preparing to purchase a specimen may or may not be in a position to do that, so it is possible, and I know it does happen, that mammoth tusks are serving as a cover essentially for illegal traffic in modern-day elephant ivory.


Hills: What are the Chinese using the ivory tusks of mammoths and also of elephants for?


Fisher: What we usually see are everything from the carved trinkets to these large, dramatic whole-tusk sculptures. Ivory artisans will take a whole mammoth tusk or a whole elephant tusk, and along it, in many separate figurines, carve a whole scene, a whole caravan, a whole ecosystems of animals, if you will. Certainly the workmanship itself is often impressive, but those of interested in the fate of elephants today, and for that matter in the scientific work that can be done to understand the fate of mammoths, would much rather see these specimens as sources of scientific information and understanding rather than carved ivory tusks.


Hills: When you come upon these ivory traders in northern Siberia when youre out there doing your own research, what if they offered you a thousand dollars for some mammoth ivory, what do you say to them?


Fisher: If they were offering me money for a tusk that I had?


Hills: Yes.


Fisher: I would politely decline and say that “No, this tusk was collected under permit for scientific investigation,” that were very interested in learning about these specimens and elucidating the natural history heritage of that region. And so, because of that interest and out of respect to the importance of all of that, we would say “No, we need to keep this,” and wed go on.


Hills: Dan Fisher is a paleontologist at the University of Michigans Museum of Paleontology. Thanks so much, Dr. Fisher.


Fisher: Youre very welcome. Thank you.