Four thousand years ago, humans may have pursued mammoths to extinction. Now the hunt is on again, and climate change is making it easier.
As permafrosts beneath the Arctic tundra melt, more fossilized remains are being exposed, and a trade is growing for the mammoth tusks that are larger and more valuable than elephant ivory.
At least 60 metric tons of mammoth ivory is traded globally each year, said Peter Taylor, an engineer with almost 30 years experience in the mining and aviation industries who founded Mammoth Mining in October. A single tusk, as long as 10 feet (3 meters), can fetch $250,000, he said.
The trade takes advantage of the global ban on elephant ivory to profit from rising demand, especially in China, where the commodity is prized as a material for ornaments and traditional medicine. Mammoth ivory’s reputation as both fashionable and ethical was given a boost when U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama was photographed in 2010 wearing mammoth jewelry.
“This is a legitimate natural substitute for elephant ivory,” Taylor, 52, said in an interview in Cape Town on Feb. 4. “If it’s substituting or displacing the trade in elephant ivory, it’s already indirectly protecting the elephants.”
The market is set to grow, with an estimated 140 million dead mammoths waiting to be dug up, many of them in frozen regions of Alaska and Siberia, he said. How much of the remains are “harvestable” is unknown, said Taylor, who was chief operating officer at Africa-focused iron-ore explorer Affero Mining Inc. until it was acquired last year.
Mammoth tusks have been mined in the resource-rich region of Yakutia in Siberia for hundreds of years. Taylor, a graduate of the U.K.’s Camborne School of Mines who was also a pilot at BMI, wants to bring modern mining techniques to the search for the Ice Age creatures. Hunting for the remains is analogous to exploring for alluvial gold, he said.
“I’m applying all the principles I’ve learned including working in challenging environments, which I think Alaska and Siberia will be.”
Mammoths, members of the elephant family, weighed as much as 12 tons and were up to 5 meters tall at the shoulder, compared with 4 meters for the tallest African elephants.
“It makes elephants look like children,” Taylor said. “These were big, magnificent beasts when they were around.”
The last isolated populations disappeared about 4,000 years ago, probably because of a combination of climate change and hunting, although the exact cause remains a mystery, according to the journal Nature.
Critics of the trade in their tusks including Save the Elephants and the International Fund for Animal Welfare say it normalizes ivory and encourages the poaching of elephants to supply tusks for the illegal market. A recent campaign from Save the Elephants stated, “All ivory, even if legally sourced, fuels the ivory trade.”
A fifth of Africa’s elephants may be wiped out over the next decade if poaching continues at its current pace, with about 22,000 killed last year, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, Traffic and the International Union for Conservation of Nature said in a Dec. 2 statement.
Estimates of the African elephant population vary between 410,000 and 650,000, according to Elephants Without Borders.
Taylor plans to donate Mammoth Mining’s profit to conservation efforts. He is seeking seed capital of about $1 million to $1.5 million, and expects to interest philanthropists or energy and mining companies exploring the Arctic who seek corporate-responsibility investment vehicles.
Along with elephant conservation, Taylor wants to aid research into bringing their prehistoric cousins back to life.
Because they’ve been frozen for thousands of years, it’s not uncommon for entire mammoth carcasses to be found encased by ice, fueling hopes that there could be enough fresh genetic material to be used for cloning.
In May, Russian scientists led by Semyon Grigoryev said they found a 10,000- to 15,000-year-old female mammoth with liquid blood and muscle tissue the color of “fresh meat,” the Associated Press reported.
“The parallels between preserving a species that is endangered and regenerating one that is already extinct, it’s fantastic,” Taylor said.