As bans tighten on the international ivory trade, dealers are turning to a prehistoric cache of so-called “ice ivory” preserved in the Siberian permafrost as an unlikely—albeit surprisingly available—alternative. Woolly mammoth skeletons are relatively common throughout the Yakutia region of northern Siberia, according to a report by the AFP. And at least some of those remains have made their way into the hands of people selling ivory trinkets in Cambodia.
Scientists performing DNA testing on a number of so-called “ivory” ornaments from Cambodian vendors found that many of them were in fact mammoth tusks. The researchers—led by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland’s Dr Alex Ball—were examining the trinkets in the hope that they might be able to trace the ivory back to poaching hotspots and protect threatened elephant populations, BBC reports. Since Cambodia lies on an important ivory-smuggling route between Africa and Asia, Dr Ball and his team are working to establish a genetics laboratory there so that they can effectively track the movement of the materials.
"To our surprise, within a tropical country like Cambodia, we found mammoth samples within the ivory trinkets that are being sold," said Dr Ball. "So this has basically come from the Arctic tundra, dug out the ground. And the shop owners are calling it elephant ivory but we've found out it's actually mammoth."
It’s an important misnomer, insofar as mammoths—unlike elephants—are not covered by international agreements on endangered species. The reason being that they’re extinct and therefore not, strictly speaking, endangered. It’s this legal loophole that lies at the heart of the so-called “mammoth rush”: a way to trade in the lucrative business of ivory without violating animal protection laws. Moreover, with authorities estimating that some 500,000 tonnes of preserved mammoth tusk is currently sitting in the Yakutia icefields, supply is high—and good quality stuff can reportedly sell in China for more than $1,000 a kilo.
An optimistic view might suggest that this is a good thing as far as the living, breathing elephants of Africa and Asia are concerned. A reasonable ivory alternative that doesn’t necessitate bloodshed could be an effective way of mitigating the threat to endangered species. Yakutian tusk collector Prokopy Nogovitsyn, for one, insists that "our dead bones are saving living elephants… Being able to gather them is important both for us and for Africa." Certain palaeontologists are also in support of the practice for the fact that many collectors are uncovering other preserved specimens in the permafrost and donating them to science.
Detractors are concerned, however, that the trade of any kind of ivory, regardless of origin, only fuels the market and boosts demand for the real thing—or, on the other hand, incentivises traders to pass off elephant tusks as mammoth.
Asian elephants are currently classed as endangered, and Cambodia is estimated to have between 250 and 500 wild specimens of its own, BBC reports. African elephants are classed as vulnerable, meaning that they're likely to become endangered unless the circumstances change.