The mam­moth hun­ters

Smith Journal - - Smith Stuff - Writer Luke Ryan Pho­tog­ra­pher Ev­ge­nia Ar­bugaeva •

AS TEM­PER­A­TURES CLIMB IN RUS­SIA’S ARC­TIC REACHES, AN­CIENT MAM­MOTH TUSKS ARE EMERG­ING FROM THE PER­MAFROST. A GROUP OF HUN­TERS BRAVES

UNIMAG­IN­ABLE CON­DI­TIONS TO FIND THEM.

ONCE UP ON A TIME, THE WOOLLY MAM­MOTH WAS THE KING OF THE ARC­TIC. THREE ME­TRES TALL AND WEIGH­ING UP TO SIX TONNES, WITH TUSKS THAT CURLED AL­MOST FOUR ME­TRES, THEY STRODE THE STEPPES AND TUN­DRA OF THESE FOR­BID­DING LANDS IN THEIR HUN­DREDS OF THOU­SANDS.

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But then, around 10,000 B.C.E., a com­bi­na­tion of warm­ing weather and hu­man hunt­ing led to an ex­tinc­tion-level event. Within the space of few mil­len­nia, these gi­ants were gone, their bod­ies sink­ing deep into the frosted land­scapes of the Arc­tic. But now a new wave of cli­mate change is ex­hum­ing them from the earth, and for the Yuk­a­gir tribes­men in Siberia’s far­thest north, it has cre­ated an un­ex­pected busi­ness op­por­tu­nity.

“These guys used to be rein­deer hun­ters and fishermen,” ex­plains Ev­ge­nia Ar­bugaeva, a pho­tog­ra­pher who spent months trav­el­ling with Yuk­a­gir hun­ters. “But it’s not prof­itable to do that any­more. Hunt­ing for mam­moth tusks has be­come their new means of sur­vival.”

Their main hunt­ing ground is the daunt­ingly re­mote Kotelny Is­land, al­most 1000 kilo­me­tres north of the Arc­tic Cir­cle, where some of the last re­main­ing pock­ets of mam­moth were thought to have roamed. Ar­bugaeva was taken in by mil­i­tary he­li­copter, but for the hun­ters, even get­ting to the is­land is a months-long or­deal. “They have to make the jour­ney to the is­lands by ice, so they set out in April and then just sit around un­til

July, when the ground thaws enough to be­gin the hunt.”

Ar­bugaeva’s pho­to­graphs bear wit­ness to a life­style of in­cred­i­ble hard­ship and pri­va­tion, but one lit by rugged beauty and nec­es­sary com­pan­ion­ship. Even in sum­mer, tem­per­a­tures on the is­land rarely rise above zero de­grees and the land­scape is racked by fu­ri­ous storms and bliz­zards. Food is scarce, in­juries com­mon and po­lar bears a con­stant men­ace. Some hun­ters sim­ply set off in the morn­ing and never re­turn.

“They walk for months and months on end,” Ar­bugaeva says. “Some­times more than 30 kilo­me­tres per day.” The hun­ters carry a stick with a me­tal poker on the end, which they use to test whether a browned sur­face is tusk or just drift­wood. “It’s re­ally just luck,” she says. “Of­ten there’ll only be a lit­tle piece stick­ing out, but then if you start to dig, it will re­veal a huge tusk.” Dig­ging presents its own chal­lenges. Only the top 20 cen­time­tres of soil ever thaws, so ex­ca­va­tions hit ice quickly. “A sin­gle tusk can weigh any­where up to 100 kilo­grams. Dig­ging it up could take a day, or it could take an en­tire week.”

Mam­moth tusks are far from a new com­mod­ity. As far back as the 17th cen­tury they were be­ing un­earthed and traded among the no­bles of Europe. “In the 1600s, Peter the Great, the Tsar and first Em­peror of Rus­sia, sent sol­diers into the far north to find him these gi­ant bones,” Ar­bugaeva ex­plains. “So, the busi­ness has been go­ing on for a while. But these days it’s all Chi­nese de­mand driv­ing it.” Ivory re­mains a much-sought-af­ter com­mod­ity in Chi­nese mar­kets, where it’s prized both for its pur­ported medic­i­nal prop­er­ties and as a can­vas for in­tri­cate carv­ings. But given the in­ter­na­tional ban on the ele­phant ivory trade, mam­moth tusk has be­come the next best thing. “In Hong Kong in 2013, a kilo­gram of a high-qual­ity tusk could go for up to $500 U.S.D. And ev­ery year there’s about six tonnes of woolly mam­moth tusk be­ing dug up on these Siberian is­lands.”

Not that the hun­ters them­selves are see­ing the riches of the so-called ‘tusk rush’. As Ar­bugaeva says, “They’re just the be­gin­ning of the chain.” Typ­i­cally a mid­dle­man from a nearby vil­lage will gather a group of 15 to 20 hun­ters and fund their sea­son on the is­land, with a guar­an­tee to buy what­ever they find. For this five-month odyssey, each hunter might ex­pect to bring home be­tween $5,000 and $10,000. “The group shares the hunt. At the end of the sea­son, they bring to­gether all the tusks, weigh them and then dis­trib­ute the pro­ceeds equally.”

Un­for­tu­nately for the Yuk­a­gir, mam­moth hun­ters are fac­ing their own ex­tinc­tion-level event. “The Chi­nese mar­ket is chang­ing,” Ar­bugaeva ex­plains. “The gen­er­a­tion who were ob­sessed with these relics is get­ting older and the younger gen­er­a­tion don’t care. I’ve heard that there are al­ready ware­houses filled with un­sold tusks in Hong Kong.” Fur­ther com­pli­cat­ing mat­ters is the fact that Kotelny Is­land has be­come Rus­sia’s lat­est mil­i­tary out­post, a new fron­tier as the troops po­si­tion them­selves for an ice-free Arc­tic. “They don’t want these guys wan­der­ing the is­land, so ten­sions are ris­ing. Hunt­ing tusks is not il­le­gal, but it’s not en­cour­aged ei­ther.” In fact, tusk hun­ters have been known to have their en­tire hauls con­fis­cated by un­sym­pa­thetic bor­der guards, and their equip­ment de­stroyed. “It’s just hard to know how much longer they can keep this go­ing.”

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Even in sum­mer, tem­per­a­tures can drop to mi­nus 10 at night.

“It takes a lot of ner ve to be in a tent in the Ar ctic is­lands,” Ar­bugaeva says.

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Po­lar bears aside, mam­moth hunt­ing is haz­ardous work. The same g eo­log­i­cal forces bring­ing the tusks to the sur­face – per­mafr ost thaw brought on by global warm­ing – of ten lead to canyons giv­ing way with­out warn­ing.

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