The woolly mammoth—an animal that went extinct 4,000 years ago—is currently being considered for legal protection under conservation trade rules.
“How that can be?” you might well ask.
The answer lies in a story that’s entwined with some very modern-day issues: climate change and the rampant poaching of today’s elephants.
The exposure of climate change
Woolly mammoths are thought to have first appeared on Earth 4.8 million years ago. They coexisted with early humans, who hunted them for food and used their bones and tusks for making art, dwellings and tools. The vast majority of woolly mammoths disappeared at the end of the Pleistocene 10,000 years ago, most likely through climate change and the resultant shrinkage of their habitat, hunting by humans or a combination of the two. Isolated populations survived on Alaska’s St. Paul Island until 5,600 years ago and Russia’s Wrangel Island until 4,000 years ago. For thousands of years, then, the tusks of these massive animals remained locked in the permafrost of the world’s frozen tundra. Recently, however, warming temperatures have contributed to longer and hotter summer seasons in northeastern Siberia, bringing the mammoth’s ivory teeth within digging distance. Every year, from mid June, when the tundra melts, until mid September, hundreds if not thousands of mostly local people scour the land, looking for the ancient tusks from as many as 150 million dead mammoths.
Annually, poachers kill approximately 30,000 African and Asian elephants for their tusks, which are traded across borders, despite a ban on international trade in elephant ivory since 1989. So, at first, you might think that this new source of ivory from an elephant’s long-dead, close relative—which is often thought of as an ethical alternative and which currently can be legally traded—might stem the illegal pachyderm poaching tide.
But you’d be wrong.
Instead, ivory traders are using mammoth tusks to disguise and launder the illegal sale of elephant ivory. They sometimes mix mammoth and elephant ivories together, claiming in the paperwork it is all mammoth ivory, which looks nearly identical to elephant ivory to the untrained eye.
As the supply of elephant ivory dwindles, Chinese ivory factories and retail stores are purchasing more tusks of the extinct variety, according to a 2014 report commissioned by the nonprofit group Save the Elephants and The Aspinall Foundation. As a result, mammoth ivory has become a highly profitable export for Russia. Nearly 90 percent of the estimated 60 tons a year shipped out of Siberia ends up in China, where it gets carved into pricey art and trinkets.
The protection of CITES
Because mammoths have been extinct for thousands of years, they currently aren’t protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the 1989 treaty that regulates wildlife trade across borders and which outlawed most trade in elephant ivory.
Right now, from September 24 to October 5, 2016, the CITES CoP17 (Conference of the Parties 17) convention is being held in Johannesburg, South Africa. Israel has proposed a measure to be voted on during the conference. The resolution urges countries to better scrutinize the mammoth ivory trade and punish traders who try to pass off elephant ivory as mammoth ivory. India already won’t let mammoth ivory into the country, and four U.S. states—California, Hawaii, New Jersey and New York—have banned sales of mammoth ivory, along with elephant ivory.
While conservationists hope the attempt to protect the ancient woolly mammoth will help to decrease the amount of African and Asian elephant ivory being smuggled and laundered, banning the sale of one species to save another is problematic. A ban on the trade of mammoth ivory would unduly restrict scientific researchers and natural history museums, leaving paleontologists with fewer tusks to study in order to learn about what happened to one of the largest mammals ever to roam the Earth.
It seems ironic to me that the woolly mammoth, which lived during the Ice Age and may have gone extinct when the weather became warmer, is again becoming a victim of climate change.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,