Mammoths and the Mammoth Ivory Trade

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Dick Mol and Bernard Buigues (The Netherlands)

The ivory industry is flourishing using mammoth tusks and, illegally, the tusks of modern elephants. The growing hunt for mammoth tusks hampers palaeontological research and, as the two ivories are hard to distinguish, enforcement of endangered species legislation is impeded. Changes in legislation may not be practicable. However, education of the mammoth hunters may result in a win-win situation. This has now begun and the resulting co-operation has already lead to, and may lead to, more important discoveries and the securing of the remains for scientific exploration.


The use of mammoth ivory for the construction of tools and artefacts is already known from Palaeolithic time. Our ancestors have used it for weapons and ornaments. The quality of the ivory of woolly mammoths, Mammuthus primigenius, found in the permafrost of Siberia as well as in North America (Alaska, USA and Yukon, Canada), is of outstanding quality and easily processed by the ivory industry.

The quantity of traded ivory is substantial and the first overview of those traded amounts has been archived by Tolmachoff (1929). After this inventory, the trade has continued at an accelerated pace, especially during the last decade. Apart from the commercial value for the ivory industry, individual collectors and natural history museums often want to possess complete tusks. These intense collecting activities destroy enormous amounts of palaeontological data and obstruct the investigation of Pleistocene mammals and their habitats. It was our objective to start a discussion on how to counteract this loss of palaeontological data.

Convention on International Trade of Species

The Convention on International Trade of Species of wild flora and fauna (CITES) (also known as the “Convention of Washington”) passed a multitude of laws for the associated countries. Since the 1980s, the modern African and Indian Elephants have been declared protected species, and the trade and export of these animals and their parts are highly restricted by stringent rules. However, the ivory of extinct species is not covered by legislation and products made of mammoth ivory do not require a permit for trading and importing.

Fig. 1. Cross section of a Siberian mammoth tusk. (Photo: Dick Mol.)

Ivory products are very popular worldwide, especially in the East. Both elephant and mammoth tusks are used extensively to create all kinds of products and, obviously, the easiest obtainable raw material is the most often used in the industry. Before protective legislation, elephant’s tusks were easily obtainable and popular. But the attention shifted to mammoth tusks after the enforcement of restrictive measures on elephant tusks. The increased interest in mammoth tusks is a strong incentive to search the places known for finding mammoth remains to harvest the tusks.

Commercial implications

Customs officers are tasked with the enforcement of import/export legislation concerning endangered species and their products. They frequently encounter ivory products that are subject to this legislation but without the required permits and licenses. However, the problem is recognition. Complete tusks show up predominantly of the protected Loxodonta africana, and these are easy to recognise. Also, the tusks of the woolly mammoth are highly distinctive.

Fig. 2. Custom officers checking a shipment of mammoth ivory. (Photo: Dick Mol.)

However, the ivory products of these two types of tusks are hard to tell apart. This complicates matters substantially. Customs officers cannot afford to interfere with the legal import of mammoth ivory, nor can they permit illegal elephant ivory to pass. Moreover, the general public assumes that it is not involved in illegal activities and will not tolerate restrictions on acquiring and transporting alleged, mammoth ivory. Certain elements in the ivory industry do not hesitate to take advantage of this complication. Often, mammoth ivory and elephant ivory are mixed. Also, unscrupulous traders issue spurious certificates stating that the products were manufactured from woolly mammoth tusks, suggesting that their import and export is legal without appropriate certification.

Untrained customs officers are insufficiently equipped to detect and expose these activities. That would require the assistance of specialists on a large scale and this is not very practical. Consequently, illegal elephant ivory trade and import and export can be disguised effectively and is not restricted in the way that the international CITES legislation intended.

Fig. 3. Pieces of mammoth ivory. (Photo: Dick Mol.)

The only obviously effective countermeasure to obstruct the illegal practices of restricted elephant ivory would be to impose similar, or the same, restrictions on all ivory products. This would facilitate the customs function and the general public would be aware that dealing with any form of ivory is illegal. The bonus effect of such legislation would be that the free trading of mammoth ivory is obstructed. However, it is unclear if this would be feasible and, if so, if it would be effective in decreasing the demand and, consequently, the activities of modern mammoth hunters.

Modern mammoth hunters

In Arctic Siberia, the native population frequently encounters excellent, preserved mammoth tusks on their hunting trips. They are well aware of the trade value of these objects and also of the recent increased demand in the market. In response to this, many of them began to specialise in tusk hunting. Large tusk expeditions are conducted in the brief Siberian summers, where only three months are suitable for that purpose.

Fig. 4. Artic Siberia.

These expeditions cover vast areas, largely unreachable for genuine international palaeontological expeditions, which are restricted not only by financial parameters, but also by permissions and licenses. The hunters are only interested in harvesting tusks and they may have no interest in the palaeontological value of the remains they find.

There are numerous examples of how these tusk-driven quests are causing considerable damage to the valuable information that these palaeontological sites contain as well (Garutt, 1964; Mol et al, 2001a, b). The digging destroys stratification and disables the scientific techniques that are based on that. The removal of tusks damages other fossil remains. Unearthed, mummified remains may be left behind, decaying rapidly when exposed to the elements. Fossil remains may get mixed up and scattered, blurring the view to the past, thereby obstructing research into the enigmatic Pleistocene.

Tusk thefts

The demand for mammoth tusks has lead to even more serious excesses, including the robbery of the CERPOLEX/Mammuthus collection. The scientific program, “Who or What Killed the Mammoths?” by CERPOLEX/Mammuthus, has accumulated a large collection of fossil remains of Pleistocene mammals of the Taimyr Peninsula in North Siberia. It is located in Khatanga in an underground ice cave with permanent, sub-freezing conditions and is excellently suited to preserving mummified remains. From 1998 to 2003, a large collection of remains was accumulated, studied and documented.

Fig. 5. The underground ice cave with the CERPOLEX/Mammuthus collection of mammoth tusks. The collection was partially stolen. (Picture: Francis Latreille.)

The collection includes the Jarkov mammoth block that was still being processed. More than 300 tusks were part of the collection, all catalogued with location, description of the specimen, weight, dimensions of the original animal (gender, age, and so on) and many are carbon dated. Some tusks have been sampled by Dr Daniel Fisher from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, USA for a closer investigation of the specifics of the life and death of the animal. A part of this collection, 24 of the largest tusks with weights often exceeding 40kg, with a total weight of 1,020kg was stolen in December 2003.

Fig. 6. Dr Christian de Marliave, a team member of CERPOLEX/Mammuthus, studying a wonderful, spirally-twisted tusk of an old woolly mammoth. (Picture: Francis Latreille.)

The suspected thieves were arrested and prosecuted, but the damage was considerable. The tusks had been cut at the region of the pulp cavity. They were then cut into pieces and transported in fish bags via Moscow to unknown destinations in the Far East, where they were processed on the ivory market. Some of the pieces, the bases of the tusks, were returned, which is a small comfort. However, similar incidents have happened to museums and similar thefts are not uncommon during expeditions.

Fig. 7. A team member of CERPOLEX/Mammuthus studying a tusk of an old individual woolly mammoth.

Not all is negative: some modern mammoth hunters report their findings to the scientific community although they may or may not have consideration for the integrity of the other fossil remains. For instance, one of the mammoth hunters, Fedor Sellyakhov from Tiksi, Yakutia, discovered a mammoth mummy in the permafrost under 50cm water on Bolshoy Lyakhovsky Island, which belongs to the New Siberian Island group.

It was considered impossible for the time being to recover this mummy, but he managed to cut off the tail and part of the posterior for scientific study, giving us a clear insight into this part of the morphology of the woolly mammoth. The tail, by the way, is remarkably short (40.7cm) and has a broad base (20cm). The posterior has been preserved exceptionally well, and the anal opening measures 11cm, while the longest hair of the fur measures up to 54cm (see box Unique mammoth find below).

Unique mammoth find
Every year, mammoth hunter, Fedor Sellyakhov from Tiksi, organises an expedition to hunt for mammoth tusks on Bolshoy Lyakhovsky Island. The main objective of these expeditions is to find ivory for the commercial market. However, in the summer of 2003, he found a carcass of a mammoth just below water level, near Shalaurova Cape. It was completely frozen in the permafrost and, at the time, it was impossible to recover it. Therefore, he decided to cut off a sample of the rear of the animal, including the tail, and take it to Tiksi, where he donated it to Dr Gukov of the Nature Reserve. This piece of skin was about 125cm by 61cm in size and covered with heavy fur.
Fig. 8. Piece taken from carcass of a mammoth just below water level, near Shalaurova Cape.


This occurrence suggested a possible road ahead – direct co-operation between palaeontologists and mammoth hunters. Therefore, CERPOLEX/Mammuthus started an educational program for mammoth hunters to increase their awareness of the importance of the palaeontological heritage. We show them the collection in the ice cave of Khatanga and the processing of the fossil remains so that they can appreciate the value of all the remains and share the obtained information. With the incentive of the market value of the fossils, a win-win situation may be created.

Something similar has occurred in the Netherlands, where the North Sea floor contains enormous amounts of Pleistocene fossil remains of a past mammoth steppe. Sole and plaice fishermen used to discard those fossils when they cluttered their fishing nets. However, now, with the knowledge of the value of these remains, they are recovered, including the coordinates of the location, and the growing collections contain valuable information. (See Fossil bones from the North Sea: An easy to way to collect fossil remains from the Ice Age? for more information about this.)

Fig. 9. Fishing for a mammoth skull with tusk. (Photo: Dick Mol.)

The native mammoth hunters, who cover huge areas, have much more of a chance of making important discoveries than the odd palaeontological expeditions. With palaeontological awareness, they may minimize the damage to the finding place and they may alert the palaeontological community. Already, this has resulted in the discovery of the remarkable Yukagir Mammoth remains, details of which were reported to the second World of Elephants Conference.

About the authors

Sir Dick Mol is a Dutch palaeontologist, who is a specialist in the field of mammoths. He is a research associate of several museums. His primary focus is on mammals of the Quaternary period, including mammoths and extinct rhinoceros species. He has written extensively for Deposits magazine.

Bernard Buigues is a French explorer who has organised expeditions to the North Pole and Siberia since the early 1990s. He has developed a logistical base in Khatanga, Northern Siberia for the launching of high-latitude expeditions.


Garutt, W. E., 1964. Das Mammut. Mammuthus primigenius (Blumenbach) – a. Ziemsen Verlag, Wittenberg Lutherstandt, 140p; Mol, D. et al, 2001a.

The Jarkov Mammoth: 20,000-year old carcass of a Siberian woolly mammoth Mammuthus primigenius (Blumenbach, 1799), in: Cavarretta, G., Gioia, P., Mussi, M. and Palombo, M.R. (eds.), Proceedings of the 1st International Congress La Terra degli Elefanti / The World of Elephants, Rome, October 16-20, 2001: 305-309.

Mol, D. et al, 2001b. The Fishhook Mammoth: rediscovery of a woolly mammoth carcass by the CERPOLEX/Mammuthus Team, Taimyr Peninsula, Siberia, in: Cavarretta, G., Gioia, P., Mussi, M. and Palombo, M.R. (eds.) – Proceedings of the 1st International Congress La Terra degli Elefanti/The World of Elephants, Rome, October 16-20, 2001: 310-313.

Tolmachoff, I.P., 1929. The Carcasses of the Mammoth and Rhinoceros found in the frozen ground of Siberia. The American Philosophical Society. article I, Volume XXIII, pp. 1-74.

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