Imagine this: for months on end, hunters brave frostbite-inducing temperatures, polar bears, and near starvation. Sometimes, they have to cross freezing water, where big waves threaten to topple their boats. Russian guards will harass them, swooping low on helicopters and stealing their equipment. This isn’t an action movie. This is the life of the hunters who dig for tusks from long-extinct woolly mammoths.
In groups as big as 60, truck drivers or factory workers spend summers digging through hundreds of feet of Siberian frozen dirt. Climate change and melting permafrost have actually benefited the hunters, who are sometimes able to find enough ivory to sell, making enough to support their families for a year or more. The risk is that a hunter will find nothing, and actually lose money from buying supplies.
Why does hunting for ancient ivory matter? For some, it seems like a good idea because it prevents poachers and hunters from killing elephants for their tusks. These woolly mammoths have been dead for millennia; it’s not like they need their tusks. In reality, it can make illegal ivory trading worse. What smugglers will do is mix mammoth tusks in with elephants tusks, and because the system is so lax, they won’t mark anything. To fight the problem, retail shops in China require ID cards for each piece of ivory, but even then, there’s less than ethical trading occurring. China has the largest ivory trade in the world, so that’s where most – if not all – of the ancient ivory ends up.
Speaking of China, the country has recently pledged to end its ivory trade by the end of 2017. No word on if ancient ivory will also be included, though if it’s the entire trade, one would assume the ban would shut down that, as well. Summertime hunters will have to find another way to make money, and the tusks lying beneath layers and layers of ice will rest undisturbed.