Ethical ivory? Mammoth tusk boom sparks debate

Sep 27, 2010
Tim Edwards

Mammoth ivory from Russia is legal, but it could one day be used to disguise the black market in elephant tusk

Russia's booming trade in ivory from the tusks of long-dead woolly mammoths has sparked a debate over whether there can be such a thing as 'ethical ivory'.

Every year, as the winter ice recedes, ivory spotters fly over the Siberian tundra to locate the defrosting remains of mammoths, an animal that went extinct 4,000 years ago. The retreat of the permafrost, caused by global warming, has only added to the annual haul of the animals' valuable ivory.

According to a new report published in Pachyderm, a journal of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, Russia exports around 60 million tonnes of mammoth ivory to its biggest market, China, every year – and it is estimated there could be as many as 150 million corpses belonging to the long-extinct mammal under the permafrost.

The popularity of mammoth ivory is now such that even the US First Lady Michelle Obama has been photographed wearing jewellery made from the material.

Mammoth tusks fetch around £320 per kilogram – significantly more than elephant ivory, which can cost anything between £24 for black market tusks in Kenya to £91 for officially sanctioned auctions of ivory seized from poachers. But mammoth ivory has the advantage of being legal – with none of the extra costs associated with smuggling.

It is hoped that the boom in the mammoth ivory trade could be beneficial to elephant conservation and put the squeeze on elephant poachers in Africa. The authors of the Pachyderm report, Esmond Martin and Chryssee Martin explain:

"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.

"This may in the long run lower elephant ivory prices and reduce incentives to poach elephants."

The paper concludes that the trade in mammoth ivory is not presently adversely affecting conservation of African or Indian elephant and should not therefore be banned.

However, a problem could arise in the future "if mammoth tusks were to be brought into African countries, where law enforcement is poor, specifically as a cover for illegal elephant ivory carving and sales".

India has already banned mammoth ivory imports for similar reasons, suggesting that the concept of ethical ivory has a way to go before reaching general acceptance.


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