Russian miners are risking their lives and making a fortune by unearthing prehistoric woolly mammoth tusks preserved in the permafrost and selling them for thousands on the Asian ‘ethical ivory’ market.
They bore 200ft tunnels into hillsides along the Yakutia river, about 4,300 miles east of Moscow, searching for the ‘white gold’ which, once carved, can fetch up to $1million.
The miners, who spend around five months searching for the remains in the Russian wilderness, also sell the tusks of woolly rhinos, worth more than their weight in gold, which are ground up to be sold as medicine in Vietnam.
Mammoth tusks were considered for protected status by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) last year, in an attempt to limit this trade.
The miners make a fortune unearthing the ancient mammoth remains hidden in permafrost along the Yakutia river, 4,300 miles east of Moscow. They are pictured carrying a tusk out of the earth above
A miner pictured cleaning a tusk after it was discovered. The remains can fetch $34,000 for 65kg, reports FreeRadioEurope. They are cleaned with grass once found and wrapped in cling film before being taken to traders
Woolly rhino tusks, also sealed in the permafrost, can also be sold to traders. They are ground down into powder before being sold on the Vietnamese medicine market
A miner pictured holding a woolly rhino horn. These can be worth more than their weight in gold once prepared
RadioFreeEurope sent a photographer to spend part of the summer with Yakutsk’s riches-seeking miners to reveal their discoveries and the conditions they faced while hunting remains of the animals, which have been extinct for more than 4,000 years.
Tusks pulled from the ground on the expedition fetched an estimated $100,000 for one pair, while one tusk that weighed in at 65kg was sold for $34,000.
A 2.4kg woolly rhino horn that was also found during the expedition, which felt like soggy driftwood and smelled of unwashed dog, was also sold for $14,000.
Residents head on these expeditions because a find offers a life-changing sum of money, compared to the average $500-a-month that they would receive on an average wage in the region.
Despite the stories of getting rich quick, however, most miners – or tuskers as they are also known – go home with nothing. Dr Valery Platnikov, a paleontologist familiar with tusking sites, said that ‘only around 20 to 30 per cent of tuskers will find something significant enough to make a profit’.
‘It’s very sad,’ he said, ‘a lot of these guys have taken out bank loans to pay for these expeditions’.
A miner pictured walking out of a tunnel carrying a woolly rhino head. The horn is usually around 15 to 20 metres away, they said. The tunnels are bored into hillsides near the river
A map showing the location of the world’s permafrost and Yakutsk, where these were recovered
The caves tunnelled out by the miners. Many are at risk as these could collapse on top of them at any moment
The hoses for mining are powered by modified Soviet-era engines used for snowmobiles
After setting camp along the river Yakutia, in this case five hours from the nearest small town, the miners were pictured using pumps to blast the permafrost open and reveal the treasures hidden beneath.
To keep the expedition cheap, they use Soviet-era Buran snowmobile engines, converted into water pumps for mining and remain at the camps throughout the season.
They are also surrounded by swarms of mosquitoes as they work on warmer days and, as a result, many are seen wearing clothes more suited to keeping bees than hard labour.
The bones and tusks have survived as they were entombed in the frozen permafrost, which has stopped organisms from breaking them down.
One tusk, when discovered, even got a dog excited as it ‘still smelled of meat’, reports Wired. It was rubbed down with dry grass before being wrapped in clingfilm and driven on a five-hour boat trip to the miner’s village – where it was sold to a Chinese dealer for $34,000.
Mosquitoes are a constant problem during mining. Many are seen wearing beesuits to protect themselves
This woolly rhino skull is being used to help prop up a kettle. Its horn is highly prized
A tent that the miners lived in. They can stay in the area for up to five months searching for the horns and tusks that could make them rich
Once mined the horns are often ornately carved. This set could go on sale for around $1million in Hong Kong
The miners also employ look outs, in case police turn up. The fine is relatively small – at $45 – but landing three of these could leave a miner facing serious charges.
There are mammoth mining licences but in recent years Chinese traders have turned more and more to the black market, as legal miners have not delivered enough ivory, reports Wired.
One trader that they spoke to who has a licence said that most of his mammoth remains are still stuck with customs – more than a year after he tried to export them.
Mammoths once patrolled Russia’s frozen wastes from 400,000 years ago until their population declined at the end of the Pleistocene 10,000 years ago. A few hung on on outcrops of land, such as Wrangel Island, until they finally died out around 4,000 years ago.