MAM­MOTH TASK

An ex­tinct Siberian gi­ant could save the African ele­phant from be­ing hunted into ex­tinc­tion by ivory poach­ers

The Advertiser - SA Weekend - - THREATENED SPECIES -

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pic­ture would have come from 40 to 50 ele­phants and was worth an es­ti­mated $556,000.

The des­ti­na­tion for much of this black mar­ket ivory is China – the largest im­porter of il­le­gal ele­phant tusks in the world. Some ex­perts reckon that China may im­port some 60 tons of ivory per year, which would re­quire the il­licit slaugh­ter of at least 1200 ele­phants. Sadly, that fig­ure may well be an un­der­es­ti­mate.

Some par­tially suc­cess­ful steps have been taken to try to stran­gle the sup­ply of ivory.

In 1990, the Con­ven­tion on In­ter­na­tional Trade in En­dan­gered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) brought about a world­wide ban, which made a huge dent in the trade. In ad­di­tion, poach­ers are tracked down and of­ten shot dead like the very an­i­mals they hunt.

Sev­eral high-pro­file names, in­clud­ing Prince Wil­liam and Chelsea Clin­ton, have done their best to raise aware­ness of the prob­lem.

But de­spite all th­ese ef­forts, African ele­phants are still be­ing slaugh­tered in their thou­sands, and some­how their ivory ends up for sale on the streets of Beijing and Shang­hai, where a carved tusk can sell for as much as $200,000, and a ban­gle for $2000. Such prices are no de­ter­rent for the newly-en­riched Chi­nese mid­dle-class, who re­gard the pur­chase of ivory as a vi­tal part of keep­ing up with the Wangs.

So can any­thing be done to save the ele­phant in its nat­u­ral habi­tat? The so­lu­tion may well lie in the per­mafrost of the Arc­tic Cir­cle, for buried there, from Alaska to Siberia, are an es­ti­mated 150 mil­lion frozen corpses of the mod­ern ele­phant’s an­ces­tor – the woolly mam­moth.

Dur­ing the sum­mer, when the per­mafrost par­tially melts, the re­mains, in­clud­ing the vast tusks, are ex­posed. That an­cient ivory is al­most iden­ti­cal to that of to­day’s ele­phants.

Be­cause of this sim­i­lar­ity, the past few years have seen a bur­geon­ing trade in mam­moth ivory, which is both le­gal and does not ne­ces­si­tate the killing of a dwin­dling species.

From 2007 to 2013, Hong Kong im­ported some 275 tons of mam­moth ivory, the vast ma­jor­ity of which came from Siberia, and most of which ended up be­ing ex­ported to main­land China. The cost is sim­i­lar as well. Ele­phant ivory is bought whole­sale for around $2779 per kilo­gram, whereas mam­moth ivory is a lit­tle cheaper, at around $2565.

As a re­sult, there have been calls for the trade in mam­moth ivory to be en­cour­aged, and ul­ti­mately, for it to re­place the ele­phant ivory mar­ket.

One of those voices is Peter Tay­lor’s, a for­mer ex­ec­u­tive at a min­ing com­pany in Africa. He has es­tab­lished an or­gan­i­sa­tion called Mam­moth Min­ing, which seeks to mine and sell mam­moth ivory to save ele­phants.

“Most de­vel­op­ing na­tions are ped­alling as fast as they can”’ he ar­gues, “con­ser­va­tion isn’t that big on the agenda when poverty has to be ad­dressed.”

Mr Tay­lor’s con­cept is sim­ple. By in­creas­ing the amount of mam­moth ivory on the mar­ket, he would seek to re­duce the de­mand for ele­phant ivory. Any prof­its made would be chan­nelled back into ele­phant con­ser­va­tion.

But there are some who think that us­ing mam­moth tusks is not the ivory bul­let that will solve the prob­lem.

Among them is Pro­fes­sor Adrian Lis­ter, a palaeon­tol­o­gist at the Nat­u­ral History Mu­seum in Lon­don, who, some­what provoca­tively, wants the ex­tinct mam­moth to be listed as a pro­tected species. “If we want to shut the door on the poach­ing of ele­phants it may be nec­es­sary to shut down the trade in mam­moth tusks, as it keeps up the de­mand for ivory,” he says.

Also, a re­port last year for found that nu­mer­ous pieces of “mam­moth ivory” be­ing sold in Beijing and Shang­hai ac­tu­ally came from ele­phants.

De­spite th­ese prob­lems, many con­ser­va­tion­ists have no wish to see mam­moth ivory banned. “Con­sumers who are pre­vented from buy­ing mam­moth ivory may end up buy­ing ele­phant ivory,” ex­plains Es­mond Martin, coau­thor of the re­port.

Some may find it dis­taste­ful to dis­turb the graves of pre­his­toric beasts, but that is surely prefer­able to the vile poach­ing that takes place on the sa­vanna.

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