All news

Mammoth tusk business: How to legalize the sector

TASS tells about Yakutian authorities' plans to bring the sector under the state control and the ‘mammoth rush’ in Yakutia’s north

YAKUTSK, February 7. /TASS/. About 100 tonnes is the annual production of mammoth tusks in Yakutia, where about every third tonne is illegal. TASS tells about how Yakutia’s authorities plan to bring the sector under the state control, about the ‘mammoth rush’ in Yakutia’s north, and about how the tusk hunters live.

The mass searches for the animals’ remains provoke damage to the North’s fragile ecology, they are extremely dangerous for people, who may fall into land pits. The local authorities say the situation may be improved with adoption of a federal law, which could make easier for the locals the process of obtaining licenses. Besides, they said, the region should have an authorized operator, which could accumulate the found objects, process them and export the raw material to China, to where up to 90% of found tusks are exported.

Tusk hunters

In northern Yakutia, where unemployment is very high, more and more people choose to become tusk hunters. This is a consequence from degradation of traditional sectors, including reindeer breeding, Director of the Geos mining company Valery Krivoshavkin told TASS.

According to him, the region has only five-six legal companies, involved in tusk hunting. All the rest are the locals, who work illegally. "Practically the entire population in the northern districts is involved in searches for tusks," he said. "This rush attracts entire villages, and thus people manage to live through a year."

A local resident Vladimir Sleptsov (name changed) said even women now join the hunting. "Women are searching, too, they join teams as cooks," he said. "Apparently, the hunters’ life is improving; many buy flats in Yakutsk, expensive cars, snow vehicles, and, of course, save money to the next season."

The work is quite dangerous: bears may attack, a river shore may slide. "But, anyway, it is a job, and over there people have to make money somehow to survive," Krivoshavkin said.

Searching for tusks is not a choice, but a necessity the locals are facing, author of a documentary on mammoth hunters Maxim Arbugayev said. "By hunting for tusks the people survive in the North. There are not many jobs there, and the people have to risk lives, have to leave their families for long to join the tusk rush," he said. The film director had spent about two months with the hunters while he was making the film.

Crisis and mammoths

Revenues from selling tusks are falling from year to year. "Presently, one kilo of first-class tusk in Yakutsk costs between 18 and 25 thousand rubles ($315-437). After the crisis (as the ruble exchange rate slumped - TASS), the price in rubles shrunk by a half," Krivoshavkin said.

During a season, Geos employs two or three teams. Finding tusks becomes more and more difficult, the businessman said. "While ten years ago, the tundra was virgin, nowadays you can see traces from off-road vehicles everywhere there," he continued. The businesses have to get adapted - they hire divers, who look for tusks ‘probing’ bottoms of lakes and rivers.

"For work of about 6 weeks (this is for how long a season continues - TASS), they earn about 100-150 thousand rubles ($1,800-2,600)," Krivoshavkin said.

At the same time, Sleptsov said, expenses for organizing an expedition may be around one million rubles ($17,500). "They have to buy a motor boat, a water pump, plus fuel, food, some equipment, special outfit," he explained.

However, he continued, incomes depend on luck. "You may find tusks worth even 30 million ($525,000), or 15 million rubles ($262,000). Cases of the kind do happen. Or - you may earn only half a million ($8,700), even less than invested, or simply remain with nothing," he added.

On the black market, the prices are double, he said - about 50,000 rubles ($874). If smuggled into Khabarovsk or to the Amur Region, prices are even higher. "But there is a clear risk of prison, thus most hunters sell tusks right at their villages, where, of course, the price is lower. They sell them to those, who will resell them," Sleptsov said.

Out of the shadow economy

Experts say, about 30 tonnes of tusks are found illegally in Yakutia every year. The republic’s Minister of Investments and Entrepreneurship Anton Safronov says the shadow market drops wholesale prices. "The market is filled with sellers, including the shadow offer, thus dumping the export," he said. The prices and the local resident’s revenues will grow if the market is centralized and regulated, the minister said.

"We could have an authorized operator, which could collect, process and export the material. Thus, we could influence the market and pricing policies," the minister said, adding the authorities continue talks with Chinese companies, as about 90% are exported to that country.

According to Yakutia’s legislator Vladimir Prokopyev, the local parliament plans presenting to the federal State Duma a bill on using resources of the mammoth fauna.

The bill suggests easier permissions for the locals to collect the mammoth fauna. "The bill protects to the maximum interests of the North’s indigenous peoples, as it gives to them the right to collect the fauna," he said. "It would be a regulation, much easier than a license."