Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

Kiwi exposes Russia's 'mammoth pirates'

This 65kg tusk, photographed a moment after it was plucked from the permafrost, was sold for $34,000. Photo / Amos Chapple/RFE/RL
This 65kg tusk, photographed a moment after it was plucked from the permafrost, was sold for $34,000. Photo / Amos Chapple/RFE/RL

An intrepid Kiwi photojournalist has been given a rare glimpse inside the world of mining and selling woolly mammoth tusks.

Former Herald photographer Amos Chapple recently spent three weeks in the Russian wilderness documenting the practice of "tusking" - digging out buried mammoths to take their tusks.

The tusks, some weighing more than 70kg, are being sold into a market in China, fetching prices of tens of thousands of dollars.

Some tuskers use the excavating power of the pressurized water to bore deep underground. This tunnel runs for over 60 metres. Photo / Amos Chapple/RFE/RL
Some tuskers use the excavating power of the pressurized water to bore deep underground. This tunnel runs for over 60 metres. Photo / Amos Chapple/RFE/RL
Others carve enormous caverns under the frozen ground.  Photo / Amos Chapple/RFE/RL
Others carve enormous caverns under the frozen ground. Photo / Amos Chapple/RFE/RL
To keep his expedition cheap, this young tusker converted the engine from a Soviet-era Buran snowmobile into a water pump. Photo / Amos Chapple/RFE/RL
To keep his expedition cheap, this young tusker converted the engine from a Soviet-era Buran snowmobile into a water pump. Photo / Amos Chapple/RFE/RL

So-called "tuskers" spend months hunting in the vast Yakutia region of Siberia, where a huge sheet of permafrost just below the surface preserves the prehistoric giants.

The tuskers use powerful pumps, designed for firefighting, to blast into the earth and reach the buried remains.

As the pumps roar through gasoline (one brigade went through five tons of it in three weeks) most of the prospectors will turn up only "worthless" bones like these. Photo / Amos Chapple/RFE/RL
As the pumps roar through gasoline (one brigade went through five tons of it in three weeks) most of the prospectors will turn up only "worthless" bones like these. Photo / Amos Chapple/RFE/RL
This woolly rhinoceros horn will probably end up in Vietnam and be ground into powder, then marketed as medicine. The 2.4kg horn was sold to an agent for $14,000. Photo / Amos Chapple/RFE/RL
This woolly rhinoceros horn will probably end up in Vietnam and be ground into powder, then marketed as medicine. The 2.4kg horn was sold to an agent for $14,000. Photo / Amos Chapple/RFE/RL
The number of tuskers across the Yakutia region, which is eight times the size of Germany, is increasing every year. Photo / Amos Chapple/RFE/RL
The number of tuskers across the Yakutia region, which is eight times the size of Germany, is increasing every year. Photo / Amos Chapple/RFE/RL

The recent rush for the "white gold" has made millionaires out of some residents of Siberia's poorest villages, where "agents" act as middle men between tuskers and their wealthy buyers.

Sculpted tusks regularly sold for more than $1 million each.

There were also lucrative markets for the remains of other animals: horns from woolly rhinos, which typically end up in Vietnam to be ground into powder and then marketed as medicine, also sold for tens of thousands of dollars each.

Tuskers risked small fines, but serious charges if caught more than three times.

Warnings of "greenie patrols" - boats with environmental-protection officers accompanied by police - sent the tuskers scurrying into the bush, before a watchman gave the all-clear over a walkie-talkie after the boat had passed.

 Tusks and bones can survive tens of thousands of years once locked into the permafrost. Photo / Amos Chapple/RFE/RL
Tusks and bones can survive tens of thousands of years once locked into the permafrost. Photo / Amos Chapple/RFE/RL
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. Photo / Amos Chapple/RFE/RL
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. Photo / Amos Chapple/RFE/RL
Mosquitoes are a near constant plague. Only the coldest mornings offer an hour or two of relief. Photo / Amos Chapple/RFE/RL
Mosquitoes are a near constant plague. Only the coldest mornings offer an hour or two of relief. Photo / Amos Chapple/RFE/RL

Chapple said the illegal nature of tusking naturally made it difficult for him to gain exclusive access.

At first, he tried to blend in among the men by doing odd-jobs, before he was confident enough to start taking pictures.

Some reacted with hostility, stopping him on trails and questioning him.

"There were 60 or 70 guys out there, so what I was doing, journalistically, was quite tricky."

Remains of a prehistoric animal near a tusker's tunnel. Photo / Amos Chapple/RFE/RL
Remains of a prehistoric animal near a tusker's tunnel. Photo / Amos Chapple/RFE/RL
A mammoth tusk unearthed from the ground. Photo / Amos Chapple/RFE/RL
A mammoth tusk unearthed from the ground. Photo / Amos Chapple/RFE/RL

Tusking was polluting the region's rivers, clogging them with silt and slurry from the tunnelling, but the bigger concern was with the damage to Siberia's ancient artefacts.

Chapple had witnessed tuskers, with hands wet with fur and hair, casually discarding pieces of animal hide to get to the tusks.

"I spoke to the manager of the mammoth museum in the region's big city, and he said, 'You come to me with questions about the environment? Paleontological treasures are being destroyed'.

"The reality is that so much is being lost."

He planned to approach major news outlets with his pictures to raise more awareness around the issue.

- NZ Herald

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