Apr 9, 2013
Climate change–both the literal thaw in the Siberian permafrost and the political thaw in the Cold War militarization that long controlled life in the Soviet Arctic–is currently exposing long-frozen tusks of ancient wooly mammoths to the light of day and the vicissitudes of the global economy.
Until the end of the last ice age, around 10,000 years ago, woolly mammoths ranged the grasslands of eastern Siberia. As the icecaps melted and sea level rose, the grasslands became forest or were submerged in the Arctic Ocean, until hungry mammoths were eventually crowded together on isolated islands in the eastern Arctic. The last of them died there about 3,500 years ago.
A mammoth tusk like this one, which weighs 150 pounds, can sell for $60,000 in the Siberian town of Yakutsk, and it may fetch $200,000 or more in the ivory markets of China.
Each summer, thawing permafrost exposes more tusks in gravelly riverbanks and seaside bluffs, especially on remote, uninhabited islands north of easternmost Siberia. Each spring, Yakut tusk-hunters cross the frozen sea to begin searching for the new "crop" of ivory; they work alone or in small crews, living on scant rations in rough huts, until late-summer snowstorms once again hide their quarry.
The unlucky ones leave then, returning home emptyhanded in small boats in rough waters. The lucky ones hang on for a few more weeks, however, till the ocean freezes again and they can transport their tusks much more easily in sledges hauled by snowmobiles.