The mammoth hunters
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.
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.”
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.
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.