Siberian Mammoth Pirates

In Russia’s Siberian wilderness, a new gold rush is on, as local ‘tuskers’ evade police and set up temporary illegal ivory mines, blasting away soil and permafrost to find the tusks, horns, and bones of long-extinct woolly mammoths and rhinos. Deman for ivory remains huge in China and other Asian nations, and the market for elephant tusks is tightening as preservation efforts increase. A large mammoth tusk—“ethical ivory”—can be worth tens of thousands of dollars to a lucky tusker. Photographer Amos Chapple, working for Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, traveled to Russia’s Yakutia region with some of these tuskers, documenting their search, the environmental impact, and some of their finds. Be sure to see his full story at Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty. [12 photos total]

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1
This 65-kilogram mammoth tusk, photographed a moment after it was plucked from the permafrost, was sold for $34,000. The two men who found it unearthed three more in just over a week, including one weighing 72 kilograms. (© Amos Chapple / Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty) #
2
A river cuts through Siberia's Yakutia region. Chapple reports that there were three tusker sites along a 120-kilometer stretch of this river alone. (© Amos Chapple / Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty) #
3
Tuskers use powerful pumps and hoses to strip away soil and burrow into the underlying permafrost, sometimes peeling away entire hillsides. (© Amos Chapple / Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty) #
4
Pumps, designed for firefighting, fill the valley with exhaust smoke as they draw water from the river. (© Amos Chapple / Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty) #
5
In warm soil, bones would rot away within a decade. But tusks and bones like this one can survive tens of thousands of years once locked into the permafrost. (© Amos Chapple / Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty) #
6
Some tuskers use the excavating power of the pressurized water to bore deep underground, others carve enormous caverns under the frozen ground. (© Amos Chapple / Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty) #
7
A skull belonging to a long-extinct woolly rhinoceros, feeling the sun on its snout for the first time in at least 11,000 years. The man who found it says that “when you find a skull, the horn is usually 15 or 20 meters away.” (© Amos Chapple / Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty) #
8
A tusker wipes mud from a mammoth tusk just discovered in a hillside. (© Amos Chapple / Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty) #
9
A woolly rhinoceros skull is used to help prop up a kettle. (© Amos Chapple / Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty) #
10
Mosquitoes are a near constant plague. Only the coldest mornings offer an hour or two of relief. (© Amos Chapple / Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty) #
11
When the alcohol comes out, all hell breaks loose. Returning from a resupply run to town, these tuskers have made it halfway back to camp staggering drunk. But soon after this picture was taken, the trip took a turn for the worse. Near a spot where two prospectors drowned last year, the men crashed their boat at speed. A 3 a.m. rescue mission (the sun never sets during summers here) found them passed out in a boat full of waterlogged equipment. (© Amos Chapple / Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty) #
12
This woolly rhinoceros horn will probably end up in Vietnam and be ground into powder, then marketed as medicine. The 2.4-kilogram horn was sold to an agent for $14,000. (© Amos Chapple / Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty) #

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