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