Mammoth ivory trade raises fears for elephants

A burgeoning trade in ivory harvested from long-dead mammoth skeletons is raising concerns about its effect on endangered elephant populations.

A burgeoning trade in ivory harvested from long-dead mammoths is raising concerns about the effect of the practice on endangered elephant populations.

This undated handout provided by ExhibitEase LLC shows a 3D computer generated Image of woolly mammoth emerging from an ice block. (Steven W. Marcus/Associated Press))

The international trade in elephant ivory has been effectively banned since 1989, when the United Nations passed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES treaty.

Before that, African and Indian elephants were hunted to the brink of extinction by poachers eager to sell their valuable tusks to collectors.

The ban has helped elephant populations recover somewhat but has done little to reduce the demand for ivory. So a group of enterprising Russian businesses is reviving a centuries-old tradition of recovering the ivory tusks of extinct woolly mammoths when they are exposed from the permafrost in Siberia during the short Russian summer.

It can cost as much as 10 times the price of illegally acquired ivory but has the advantage of being legal, since it does not circumvent the worldwide ban on new ivory products.

The main buyer is China. A recent report in the journal Pachyderm estimates the country imports more than 54 tonnes worth of Russian mammoth ivory a year, and there’s believed to be more than 150 million undiscovered skeletons beneath Siberia. At current market prices of $350 US per kilogram, there’s clearly an untapped market.

"Every year, from mid-June, when the tundra melts, until mid-September, hundreds if not thousands of mostly local people scour the tundra in northern Siberia looking for mammoth tusks," authors Edmond and Chryssee Martin said in their report.

In some ways, the practice is nothing new — references to mammoth ivory carving have been found in Chinese books dating from 400 years BC. But the CITES ban on elephant ivory undeniably picked up the pace, to the point that experts now think there’s more mammoth ivory in the world than elephant specimens, illegal or otherwise.

In the 1980s, a small Canadian firm actually managed to corner the global mammoth market. Calgary-based Canada Fossils used connections in the Soviet government at the time to become one of the few foreign companies allowed to export mammoth ivory.

At peak prices, perfectly preserved tusks can fetch as much as $1,000 US per kilogram.

"We were interested in complete tusks for our museum business, but we found that broken pieces were usable for collectibles and jewelry," Canada Fossils president Pierre Paré said.

The company used to sell as much as two tonnes worth of ivory a year, but the business has declined to about 400 kilos annually after the fall of the Soviet empire allowed new players to enter the market, Paré said. Much of the company’s supply now comes from Alaska, not Russia.

The controversial trade is not without its detractors, and opponents of the practice say it leads to more poaching as it provides a convenient way to disguise illegal ivory. But supporters claim it helps stop elephant poaching by providing a legal alternative.

Russian scientists removed an entire woolly mammoth, shown here, from Siberian permafrost in 2007. ((Ho Old/Reuters))

"It is highly unlikely that the mammoth ivory trade is presently adversely affecting elephants …therefore international commerce in mammoth ivory should not be banned," the Martins concluded in their report.

They note there’s little evidence that elephant ivory is being smuggled into Russia, by far the largest supplier of mammoth ivory, for sale. Nor is it common to find mammoth ivory in areas with large elephant populations such as Africa or India.

"Elephant tusks … can be purchased for $50 a kilo in some town in Central Africa, compared with $350 US a kilo for mammoth ivory in Russia," the report found.

At present, there are no restrictions on the sale, import or export of mammoth ivory in Canada as the species is extinct. (Indeed, the sale or possession of elephant ivory that is proven to have been collected prior to 1975 remains legal in Canada.)

India is the only country that bans mammoth ivory, because of fears it can be used as cover for products made of endangered Indian elephants.

"Worked products from mammoth ivory, need close scrutiny to ensure that elephant ivory is not also being processed surreptitiously and marketed," international wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic said in a recent report.

To that end, the agency has provided customs and borders agents across the globe with information to be able to distinguish between elephant and mammoth based on the grain of the ivory since 1991.

The industry defies traditional economic logic in that demand has spiked even as supply has increased. After being dormant for decades, Russian mammoth exports have skyrocketed since the Soviet regime fell, and the CITES ban on elephant ivory began around the same time.

And in another odd coincidence, Paré says the global mining boom — such as the one underway to tap Russia’s oil and gas resources — is feeding the mammoth boom.

"Over the last 25 years, we’ve found that the price of elephant ivory mirrors the price of gold almost exactly," he said.

The spot price of gold gained more than $10 US to more than $1,307 US an ounce on Tuesday.