Open Season on the Woolly Mammoth

By Hyman, Randall | International Wildlife, May-June 1995 | Go to article overview

Open Season on the Woolly Mammoth


Hyman, Randall, International Wildlife


This Ice Age elephant may be long extinct, but the hunt for its treasured ivory continues

Thirty thousand years ago, while an ice age chilled much of Europe, a herd of woolly mammoths moved along a tributary of the Danube River in what today is the Czech Republic, in eastern Europe. As the animals advanced, they may have caught the scent of an enemy and halted abruptly, may have stood with ears held out for the slightest sound, trunks raised above white, curving tusks, testing the air. And perhaps the mammoths trumpeted in alarm when shrieking, fur-clad human hunters brandishing stone-tipped spears suddenly rushed upon them, waving torches to panic the animals into a tight bunch for ease of spearing.

The details of that battle faded from human memory millennia ago, but the bones of the slaughtered mammoths told part of the tale when paleontologists uncovered them in years past. Study of the Czech site and of others around the globe show that ancient peoples used the woolly mammoth, a form of extinct elephant, for food, fuel, clothing and building materials. Bones and tusks were used in weapons, tools, artwork and as frameworks for houses. Some peoples even buffed their dead in tombs of entwined mammoth bones. For much of human prehistory, hunting the woolly mammoth was a vital business.

Today, 10,000 years since the woolly mammoth vanished from the Old World at the end of the last ice age, the business of hunting mammoths is still booming. With international trade in elephant ivory closed down, trade in mammoth ivory has emerged as virtually the only alternative acceptable to the international market. And as the hunt grows more furious in the face of increased demand, scientists and profiteers are at odds over the fate of an animal long extinct. Traders stalk mammoths for tusks, while paleontologists seek them for the secrets their skeletons and frozen carcasses reveal about the past. All parties search Siberia, where the remains of millions of mammoths lie locked in ice beneath the grasses and forests they once roamed.

On a cloudy summer morn chilled by winds from the Arctic Ocean, paleontologist Peter Lazarev and his boatman motor round a bend in the Adycha River of northern Sakha, a Russian republic in Siberia. Massive cliffs of sand and ice loom ahead. Though only six time zones and 5,000 kilometers (3,100 mi.) from Moscow, the scene seems so remote in time and place that Lazarev can easily imagine mammoths emerging from forests along the river.

The boatman motors up to the cliffs and runs the boat ashore. Lazarev grabs his walking stick and jumps out, combing the beach for prehistoric bones. Within minutes he pries several from the wet sand, nonchalantly ticking off species. "Reindeer, giant bison, pygmy horse. All prehistoric."

He pokes the base of the cliff and hits solid ice just centimeters below its face. "Permafrost. Very close to the surface here." In fact, the capital city, Yakutsk - where Lazarev works as director of the Sakha Republic's World Museum of Mammoths - is balanced on piers driven deep into the ice to hold tall buildings off the ground and avoid melting the permafrost. Ninety percent of Sakha, Russia's largest republic at five times the size of Texas, is underlain by this permanent layer of ice that runs a kilometer-and-a-half thick in places. It is the permafrost that has preserved mammoth carcasses for tens of thousands of years, like a giant freezer, making time stand still and allowing modern people to meet prehistoric wildlife face to face.

For the Sakha (or Yakut) people, descendants of Mongol and Turkic ethnic groups, the mammoths are buffed treasure. During the past 20 years, illegal trade in ivory so decimated the African elephant that an international ban shut down all commerce in elephant ivory in 1990. As a result, the value of mammoth ivory has soared from $6 per kilogram to $100, equal to one month's income for the average Sakha.

This windfall arrived just as the collapse of the Soviet Union weakened Moscow's regulation of commerce in Yakutsk.

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