The woolly mammoth, an extinct species that disappeared from Earth between 14,000 and 10,000 years ago,
is making a comeback.
As conservation groups and governments boost efforts to crack down on the illegal elephant ivory trade, there’s been an increase in demand for mammoth tusks, or “ethical ivory.” These fossils, harvested illegally from Russia’s Artic North, can fetch thousands of dollars.
The people who excavate the tusks, called “tuskers” or “mammoth pirates,” spend months at a time in the Siberian wilderness in the hopes of striking it rich.
Summertime brings tuskers to Russia's Arctic North, where mammoth skeletons have been perfectly preserved under frozen ground, or permafrost, for millennia.
Today, ivory tusks are intricately carved and sold for more than $1 million each. Chapple says their high prices actually drive increased demand in 'status-mad' China.
At one time, tuskers could extract skeletons from the ground using sharpened sticks. But as the 'low hanging fruit' disappeared from the permafrost, they became more creative.
Water pumps designed for firefighting draw water from the river and melt away the surface of the permafrost. Here, we see a tusk become gradually exposed.
... while others form massive caverns for excavation. Meanwhile, environmental-protection officers, accompanied by police, roam the wilderness looking for tuskers.
Fines run about $45, though three strikes can lead to serious consequences. One tusker told Chapple, 'I know it's bad, but what can I do? No work, lots of kids.'
The life of a tusker is not so glamorous. They eat canned beef and noodles most days and stay in tents. 'Mosquitoes are a near constant plague,' Chapple writes.
Most will end up losing money over the course of the summer, between the cost of gasoline for the pumps and other gear and necessities.
For the lucky few, it all becomes worth it when they uncover the holy grail. This 143-pound tusk sold for $34,000 in cash. It will likely be carved and fetch tens of thousands more.
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