Ancestors to the rescue? Mammoth ivory could reduce elephant poaching.

Elephant poaching in Africa continues fuelled by the demand for ivory – even illegal ivory. Yesterday 90kg of illicit ivory was seized entering Thailand from Ethiopia.

African elephant

Twenty years after the international trade in ivory was banned the killing of elephants for their tusks is still widespread. From a population of about 5 million African elephants in 1950, numbers reduced to about 450,000 in 1989 due to loss of habitat and the ivory trade. Since the ban in 1990 numbers have increased but only by about 100,000 and significantly less than hoped for. In 2007 45 elephants were killed by poachers in Kenya alone and in 2009 this had increased to 271. Mass poaching still occurs all over Africa and last year elephants in Sierra Leone were wiped out at its only Wildlife Park. One ton of ivory from about 100 elephants was seized in Cameroon last year on its way to China.

The Woolly Mammoth at the Royal BC Museum, Vic...

Wikipedia: Woolly Mammoth

But modern day elephants may get help from an unlikely source. Their woolly mammoth ancestors who became extinct 4000 years ago are beginning to throw their dead weight around as they emerge from under the Siberian permafrost. Every spring and summer mammoth carcases are revealed in Siberia and it is estimated that there are more than 150 million carcases preserved and recoverable. They have been recovered for thousands of years whenever they have been found. But now with the use of aerial surveys and with the high demand for ivory, mammoth ivory is beginning to be recovered in large quantities and used instead of illegal ivory. It is promoted as “ethical” ivory and the prices are high enough for Russian entrepreneurs to expand their digging.

“Russia’s mammoth ivory industry expands: what effect on elephants?”

by Esmond Martin, Chryssee Martin, Pachyderm No. 47 January–June 2010

Abstract: The commerce in woolly mammoth tusks (Mammuthus primigenius) in Russia, the main source for this raw material, has been going on for thousands of years, but during the communist period (1917-1989) the trade declined sharply. Since the early 1990s the domestic and international trade in these tusks has greatly expanded due to the freeing up of the Russian economy, more foreign visitors to the country and greater demand due to the prohibition of international trade in elephant ivory in 1990. In recent years, 60 tonnes of mammoth tusks have been exported annually from Russia, mostly to Hong Kong for carving in mainland China. Additionally, there are local carving industries in several areas of Russia, but most of the objects emerging from these locales are sold within the country. Many thousands of recently-made mammoth ivory items are for sale in Asia, Europe and North America. People wishing to buy an elephant ivory object may purchase a similar one crafted from mammoth ivory that is legal and free of cumbersome paperwork. Mammoth ivory items are not for sale in Africa. If mammoth objects were to be offered in Africa, they could serve as cover for elephant ivory items. There are pros and cons for supporting a mammoth ivory trade in respect to elephant conservation. At the moment, however, there is no evidence that the worldwide mammoth ivory trade is adversely affecting the African or Asian elephant. For this reason, and because the species is extinct and large quantities of tusks are still available in Siberia, the commerce in mammoth ivory should not be banned.

The Telegraph reports:

It is a phenomenon that has Russia’s businessmen rubbing their hands together as mammoth ivory can command a much higher price than elephant ivory and sells for as much as £330 per kilogram. Elephant conservationists are hoping that the guilt-free mammoth ivory trade continues to flourish and eventually squeezes out the illegal trade in elephant tusks altogether.

“The large quantities of mammoth tusks imported into Hong Kong, which are mostly sent to the Chinese mainland for carving, probably reduce demand for elephant ivory from Africa,” the report, in a specialist journal called Pachyderm, concluded. “This may in the long run lower elephant ivory prices and reduce incentives to poach elephants.”

Size comparison

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