An illustration of four woolly mammoths walking across a snowy hill

Woolly mammoths roamed the earth only 4,300 years ago and were driven to extinction mostly due to climate change. The last surviving population which lived on the Wrangle Island on the Arctic Ocean died out due to lack of diversity. © Mauricio Anton/wiki (CC BY 2.5).

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Why woolly mammoth ivory could spell trouble for elephants

Elephants are the poster child for the illegal wildlife trade. It is estimated that on average, 55 African elephants per day are killed for their ivory tusks.

Humans have coveted ivory for thousands of years, and demand eventually pushed elephants to the brink. International trade in their tusks is now banned, but a newer product on the global market could be fuelling the flames for elephants: mammoth tusks.

Most woolly mammoths died 10,000 years ago, but many of them are still perfectly preserved.

Their bodies have been sheltered by permafrost, or permanently frozen ground. As Earth's climate changes, these ancient giants are being revealed to the world once again. That could have an impact on their living relatives, the elephants.

Just like elephants, mammoths had enormous tusks. Their permafrost preservation has made them an attractive source of ivory for buyers.

Conservationists are hoping this influx of material onto the market might reduce the desire for elephant ivory, but nothing is guaranteed. 

Find out more in our podcast, or read the story below.

The elephant ivory problem

Ivory is a hard, creamy-white material that forms the teeth of some mammals such as elephants, mammoths, walruses, hippos, and killer whales. Elephant tusks are mostly made up of dentine - the same material that makes up human teeth.

Elephant ivory has been coveted throughout history, from the Roman Empire to the modern day. The long-time use of elephant ivory means it has become intricately intertwined in some religions and cultures, including those of Indigenous communities.

In China, elephant ivory has been considered a luxurious product since ancient times and symbolises wealth and status. The early emperors would hire skilled craftsmen to carve detailed artwork for their homes. Detailed ivory carving was a highly revered skill.

In India, people carved elephant ivory into religious statues for thousands of years. Ivory bangles worn by women were common when there were more elephants and fewer people.

Elephants are highly respected animals in Africa, and in some communities their ivory is used as a status symbol.

Since the Industrial Revolution in America, ivory has been used for all sorts of everyday items in the west, including billiard balls, piano keys and knife handles.

Global demand has driven years of poaching and bloodshed, however.

Less than a hundred years ago, 10 million wild elephants roamed the African continent, but decades of poaching and conflict has reduced the population to a mere 415,000.

Lucy Vigne, an expert on the ivory trade based in Kenya and affiliated to Oxford Brookes University, says, 'To walk or drive in an area with elephants and watch them in their natural habitats is an awe-inspiring experience.

'These huge mammals are gentle with one another; they're always watching over each other and checking on their young.

'It's a very caring society and I guess that’s why we, as humans are so enamoured by them because we can see ourselves in them, our good, caring and compassionate side.'

But these magnificent creatures are still killed in their thousands because of demand for their ivory tusks.

Although it became illegal to sell ivory across international borders in 1990, and domestic bans came into effect in some countries several years ago, the bloody trade persists via a sophisticated black market.

Time is running out for elephant populations in both Africa and Asia, compounded by habitat loss and fragmentation as ever-increasing human activities expand.

An cricket cage made from ivory, with detailed carving

A late eighteenth century ivory cricket cage made in China. The fine details on the curved panels depict people against a landscape. © Hampshire Cultural Trust/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0). 

Melted permafrost reveals more woolly mammoth tusks than ever

Enter mammoth ivory. The sale of this material is legal and has been increasing steadily.

Mammoth ivory is generally found during the summer months when the tundra melts. The ground then freezes over again for the rest of the year.

But with global warming, more parts of permafrost are now melting to reveal ancient mammoth tusks faster than before. This has caused a 'gold-rush' for mammoth ivory.

Siberian locals have hurried to sites where mammoth fossils are usually found, to recover tusks that could change their lives forever - for better or worse.

Digging for mammoth ivory is a dangerous task. It requires deep excavation into the hard ground and perilous journeys into mosquito-ridden caves.

To retrieve the tusks, a water pump is used. This often disturbs the earth in the vicinity, risking a collapse or flood at any moment. Serious injury and death are not uncommon on such jobs.

But if a mammoth tusk is found, it could mean financial freedom for a family. One tusk in good condition could sell for thousands of pounds.

Lucy says, 'At the moment, the locals are doing their best to make money because it's really hard to find work in that area. So they're digging into the ground, which is dangerous for them, and not ideal for the fossils which could become damaged in the process.'

A licence and increased paperwork are now required to sell mammoth ivory. When exporting to another country, the products are usually checked by authorities which can take months, and the traders lose money.

Therefore, Chinese dealers have been buying mammoth tusks directly from Siberian tusk collectors and transporting them back to China without going through the legal process that comes with high tariffs.

The tusk collectors in Siberia are sometimes exploited, selling their tusks to these Chinese dealers at a much lower rate while the Chinese traders make the big profits in this recent rush for mammoth ivory.

'It would be better if tusk hunters were incentivised to work with Russian scientists instead,' says Lucy. 'That way, they do not feed the black market and they could retrieve the tusks properly and carefully.

'The fossils could be used for important scientific research. Perhaps they could even find other important carcasses that scientists do not usually have funds to look for, such as the woolly rhinos.'

An extreme close up of cut ivory and mammoth tusks

One way of identifying whether a tusk has come from a woolly mammoth or an elephant is by cutting into it and observing the cross patterns, known as Schreger lines. The Schreger lines in mammoth tusks are usually narrower than a 90 degree angle, and wider in elephants at over 115 degrees. Image courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The difference between mammoth ivory and elephant ivory

In its whole form, ivory is easy to differentiate. Mammoth tusks contain a twist and curve whereas elephant tusks are straighter. Mammoth tusks also have a brown outer peel.

However, when the ivory is cut into smaller pieces, it can be much harder to distinguish, making it easy to pass off illegal elephant ivory as legal mammoth tusks.

In China, fresh material from living animals is considered more potent. 

Lucy says, 'Top master carvers usually prefer elephant ivory to mammoth as it's more predictable. With mammoth ivory, you're not sure if it will crumble as it's been underground for so long.

'However, if a carver can work with the flaws and include them in the artwork, this can mean he is more skilled. And the art can be a unique piece compared to all the similar-looking ornaments that have flooded the market.'

The ongoing fight against the ivory trade

China, the largest consumer of ivory, has made efforts to fight the illegal ivory trade by implementing a domestic ban on 31 December 2017.

But despite increased regulations in recent years, these have proved difficult to implement and the illegal trade continues to exist, including in other Asian countries such as in Laos and Vietnam, mainly for Chinese customers. Ivory items are trafficked across borders into mainland China.

While banning the ivory trade helps in some ways, it also forces the trade to go underground, making it harder to tackle.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is working with customs officials and travel and tourism companies to raise awareness amongst travellers about the illegal trade and discourage them from buying ivory.

WWF is also researching consumer mentality to understand why some people continue to purchase ivory despite knowing the bloody history and risks. The aim of this fresh approach is to establish the concept that buying ivory is socially unacceptable.

An influx of mammoth ivory provides a cruelty-free alternative to elephant ivory, but it needs to be well-regulated. It comes with its own issues such as environmental damage, exploitation and fuelling the black market.

What's more, a lot of people do not care where the material has come from as long as it looks like ivory. This gives unscrupulous traders a reason to continue to demand elephant ivory.

Lucy says, 'In order to reduce the illegal ivory trade, you have to look at the demand side. China needs to concentrate on this as they're the ones that understand their own culture. It's not for the west to come in and tell them what to do.

'It boils down to political will and if governments are not interested in curbing the illegal wildlife trade and don't put it as a high priority, it's going to be very difficult to tackle.'

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