Woolly mammoth museum skeleton
Climate change is unlocking a rich hoard of mammoth ivory. Photo: Shutterstock

Mammoth tusks legally fuel ivory trade

The EU imposes the world’s toughest sanctions against the illegal log trade, but has a more benign attitude to the trafficking of ivory – including the woolly mammoth variety.

Experts say there could be 150 million woolly mammoth bodies lying under the Arctic tundra. And as climate change rapidly advances the melting of the ice cap, the extinct behemoths and their prized tusks have become much easier prey to plunderers.

According to a May 2017 report by the Telegraph in London, about 60 tonnes of mammoth tusks a year are being exported out of Siberia – most ending up in China.

Devastating effect

That is small compared to the illegal but still booming trade in elephant ivory, but the paper says there are now concerns that the market for mammoth tusks could have a devastating effect on their modern-day African cousins.

Excavated mammoth tusks up to 10,000 years old are seen as the ‘ethical alternative’ to elephant ivory, leading smugglers to disguise African ivory as mammoth.

Where once there were some 20 million African elephants, European colonisation and subsequent poaching has reduced the number to an estimated 400,000 living in the wild. (Between 30,000 and 40,000 elephants are killed each year for their tusks.)

Chinese shutdown

China is the current destination for most poached elephant ivory, but Beijing has pledged to shut down the trade by the end of the 2017. The US has already done so.

Until very recently, the EU had been an important source of elephant tusks, with nearly 2000 illegally exported (Asia-bound) between 2013 and 2016, according to the European Commission (EC).

Finally, in May 2017 the EC floated a ‘guidance document’ banning raw ivory exports, but leaving ivory items acquired before 1976 and the entire trade in mammoth tusks unrestricted.

Elephants being washed in Sri Lankan river
Fortunately for most Sri Lankan elephants like this bathing mother and calf, they don’t have tusks. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

Interviewed for National GeographicSally Case of the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation said, “The global shift against the [mammoth ivory] trade is evident, and the EU’s failure to put its own house in order will place it in an increasingly isolated position.”

Fuelling demand

Legal ivory exports from the EU, especially to China and Hong Kong, as well as trade among member states, likely fuel demand and facilitate laundering of poached ivory into the trade system.

Many Europeans from countries that had African colonies have been selling off inherited ivory pieces. According to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), during the past decade EU countries legally exported more than 20,000 carvings and 564 tusks – and the numbers are increasing.

Some mammoth experts have suggested that the trade in mammoth ivory should be banned, even though the animals are extinct. They argue that their tusks are often sold as elephant tusks, and thus encourage overall demand for ivory.

Ornamental tusks

It is estimated that more than 50% of the ivory sold into China, which has the biggest ivory market in the world, is mammoth ivory. Hong Kong is a major destination, and the ivory is used to make jewellery and other objects, including ornamental tusks.

A proposal from Israel was to have been voted on at a recent CITES meeting in South Africa, urging countries to better scrutinise the mammoth ivory trade, punish traders who try to pass off the illegal stuff as mammoth, and consider banning residents from selling mammoth ivory within the nation’s borders. But we haven’t been able to verify if that happened.

Meanwhile, India has already banned mammoth ivory imports, and four U.S. states – New Jersey, New York, California, and Hawaii – have followed suit.

Natural Images© 2017

©2018 TONY NEILSON All Rights Reserved. All images are protected by Australian copyright law and cannot be downloaded or reproduced without my permission. Please contact me.

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