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Wooly mammoth tusks among items seized by Russia customs

Five tusks from the extinct wooly mammoth are among items reportedly seized by Russian customs agents this week, along with 1,041 bear paws, lynx fur and 26 elk lips.

The New York Times reports that a dog alerted agents to the contents "in the bed of a Chinese driver’s seemingly empty truck." 

In a twist, the Times suggests that the mammoth tusks are among the least exotic items in the cache:

The tusks are more abundant than many people in the West realize. Encased in an upper layer of Siberia’s permafrost are the remains of an estimated 150 million mammoths that lived from 3,600 to 400,000 years ago. The parts surface in the spring thaw across vast stretches of Russia’s far north and are routinely collected. Most are exported — legally — to China, South Korea and Japan to be carved into personal stamps used in place of signatures on documents.

Smuggling is reportedly blossoming in Russia’s far east, along the long border with China.

“China is a vacuum cleaner for Siberian wildlife,” Aleksei L. Vaisman, a senior coordinator for Traffic Europe-Russia, which helps monitor trade in wild animals, reportedly said.

As border agents using dogs become better at catching traffickers, smugglers have opted for the risk of large shipments, he said.

The large number of bear paws in the latest haul (from about 260 animals) were probably bought by brokers from hunters over the winter. A set of four can bring the hunters about $50.

Bear paws are a ritual dish for Chinese, while elk lips are considered a delicacy.

The items in the haul — which weighed in at almost 1.4 tons — were reportedly individually wrapped. The elk lips alone weighed 143 pounds.

Other items are used in Chinese food or medicine, or as supposed aphrodisiacs, including bear gallbladders, frogs, the genitals of spotted deer and the bones of highly endangered Amur tiger.