Sat, Jan 05, 2019 - Page 6 News List

FEATURE: Chinese demand for tusks sparks ‘mammoth rush’

AFP, YAKUTSK, Russia

Collectors are especially worried after a recent documentary on state television painted them as millionaire poachers.

The documentary called Island of Skeletons, shown on the Rossiya 24 channel, accused Yakutia authorities of turning a blind eye to prospectors’ “criminal” trade.

Prokopyev alleged the film was “ordered by [Russian] mammoth oligarchs who used to be monopolists” in buying up tusks from locals and reselling them to China, but have now lost out to Chinese dealers who come to buy them direct.

The film claims that prospectors “barbarically” destroy archeological sites, but Valery Plotnikov, a paleontologist at the Yakutia Academy of Sciences, said that the mammoth rush had been beneficial to science by providing specimens that the academy could not otherwise afford.

He was studying a rare prehistoric cave lion cub that a collector found last summer.

“We have a symbiosis with licensed collectors,” he said, adding that they provide researchers with valuable items for free, but remain owners of specimens and stand to profit when their finds are exhibited abroad.

He also receives tusks confiscated from collectors who operate illegally, without a license or in protected areas.

Those who have a license and pay a customs levy should be able to export, he said.

Yakutia Governor Aisen Nikolayev said he hoped the bill regulating tusk collectors would be finally passed this year, though he acknowledged “there is some resistance” to it.

Without a national law classifying mammoth ivory as a special natural resource, the trade remains in a “gray zone,” he said.

However, for some in Yakutia it is a source of pride that the region helps stop the hunting of elephants for tusks.

“Our dead bones are saving living elephants,” Nogovitsyn said. “Being able to gather them is important both for us and for Africa.”

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