The Mammoth Pirates

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Every summer, men head into the Siberian wilderness to hunt for mammoth tusks, I joined one expedition & watched tuskers get rich, get drunk & nearly die.
With the sale of elephant tusks under close scrutiny, “ethical ivory” from the extinct woolly mammoth is now feeding much of China’s hunger for tusks. Every summer, bands of tusk hunters head into the Russian wilderness in the hopes of striking it rich.
On condition I not reveal names or exact locations, I gained access to one site where teams of men are using illegal new methods in the hunt for what remains of Siberia's lost giants.
Four hours by speedboat from the nearest village…

is a bend in the river riddled with mammoth remains.

A paleontologist I spoke to said this site was likely once a swamp or bog which drowned prehistoric beasts.

The tuskers use water pumps designed for firefighting (Tohatsu are the preferred brand) to suck water out of the river..

and blast it into the landscape.

Some tuskers carve long, deep tunnels (which are terrifying – the walls are as soft as garden soil).

Others use the cutting power of the hoses to carve huge underground caverns.

And some gouge channels straight through the topsoil.

In the hope of finding one of these – a perfectly preserved mammoth tusk, worth around $520 per kilogram.

A little background: Siberia’s Yakutia region sits on a foundation of permafrost -- permanently frozen soil which lies a few feet below the surface.

In warm soil, bones would rot away within a decade. But tusks and bones like this mammoth hip can survive tens of thousands of years once locked into the permafrost, making Yakutia a mammoth mecca.

This 65-kilogram tusk, photographed a few minutes 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 lucky tuskers flashing a "cash" gesture. They likely earned around $100,000 in eight days.

That kind of money in a region where the average salary is around $500 a month, doesn't always buy a happy ending. This memorial is for two young tuskers who made more than $100k, partied hard, then allegedly returned up the river drunk. They flipped their boat and drowned.

In the tuskers’ hometown, elusive “agents” pay cash for fresh tusks. These plastic-wrapped tusks are on a flight to the city of Yakutsk, en route to China. This haul was covered with a tarpaulin, when I looked under it the air stewardess yelled at me, then marched down the aisle and slapped my camera out of my hand right after I took this photo.

But it’s not just mammoths that the men uncover. This skull belongs to a bison which which once roamed Siberia’s plains.

And this skull, helping to prop up a kettle, is from a woolly rhinoceros.




















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