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Tracking Mammoths

Mammoths thrived in northern Siberia until about 12,000 years ago, when a warming climate—and ancient humans—pushed them toward extinction. Today climate change—and tusk hunters—are revealing their remains.

New Siberian Islands off the Arctic coast. Just getting to the islands means traversing a 35-mile ice bridge across the sea in spring, then staying on the island until the ocean freezes over again six months later—or riding home earlier on small boats that can get engulfed by 15-foot waves.

The tusk rush is driven not by ancient callings but by powerful modern forces: the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ensuing frenzy of frontier capitalism, the international ban on trading elephant ivory and the search for alternatives, even the advent of global warming.

This hut is camouflaged against the helicopters of the Russian border guards, who last summer ousted dozens of hunters for lacking proper permits.

Rising temperatures helped seal the mammoths’ fate near the end of the last ice age by shrinking and drowning their grassland habitats. Today the thawing and erosion of the mammoth’s perma-frost graveyard—and the rush of tusk hunters—are helping bring them back.

Mammoths thrived in northern Siberia until about 12,000 years ago, when a warming climate—and ancient humans—pushed them toward extinction. Today climate change—and tusk hunters—are revealing their remains.

Free enterprise was banned in the Soviet Union, and many locals considered it bad luck to disturb the tusks, which some believed came from giant molelike creatures that lived deep under the permafrost.

Many tusk hunters work for a salary or a small percentage of the profits. Some crews wander the tundra for five months and find nothing at all.

Nobody…imagined that mammoth tusks would become an economic lifeline for a region that had been largely abandoned after the shuttering of Soviet-era mines and factories. Now hundreds, if not thousands, of Yakutiyan men have become tusk hunters.

Some 90 percent of tusks go to China, whose ivory-carving tradition dates back thousands of years. Availability of legal mammoth ivory has not reduced demand for illegal elephant ivory.

Video by Maxim Arbugaev; Editing by Shannon Sanders, NGM Staff; Design by Web Barr, NGM Staff