Photographer Joins Illegal Mammoth Tusk Hunt In Siberia, Captures How They Get Rich, Get Drunk And Nearly Die

In Russia’s isolated and remote region of Siberia, an underground economic boom is taking shape. Radio Free Europe photographer Amos Chapple, back in 2016, started inside the dark world of the Russian humankinds illegally mining for tusks and remains of the long-extinct woolly mammoth, in hopes of cashing in on black market busines. The images he captured present a compelling cycle of labor, desperation, and ecological consequence.

Woolly mammoths, lost arctic relatives of the modern elephant, are thought to have lived in Siberia about 400,000 years ago. The area now experiences year-round permafrost, a thick stratum of ice beneath the field, which has helped to preserve submerged mammoth skeletons for millennia. In ordering to reach the interred wealths of this hostile country, the men searching it “re going to have to” blast the thick-skulled, icy clay with liquid pumped from nearby rivers, which can take months on end. It’s a dangerous, illegal, and levying undertaking, but with mammoth tusks selling at around $35 k a piece to eager Chinese purchasers, it’s a worthwhile risk to males coming from cities where the average monthly wage is under $500.

It’s not all diamonds and honour, however. The men setting out on tusk hunts leave their families behind to brave rugged terrain, hoards of mosquitoes, and constant panic of spotting by police, which could result in penalties or jail convicts. They guzzle quarts of vodka and cheap brew to cope with the ordeal, to move to frequent contends among miners. Perhaps worst of all is the toll their work takes on the environmental issues; the run-off water from the frozen world they douse returns to the surrounding rivers, polluting ocean creeks and creating silt grades dramatically.

Take in the entire series below, accompanied by Chapple’s own commentary as written in his RFE section, and witness the plight of men craving to get rich, and willing to die trying.

“With the sale of elephant tusks under close investigation, “ethical ivory” from the extinct woolly mammoth is now feeding much of China’s hunger for tusks. Every summertime, bands of tusk hunters head into the Russian wilderness in the hopes of striking it rich. On condition I not reveal identifies or precise locations, I gained better access to one locate where crews of men are employing illegal working method in the hunt for what remains of Siberia’s lost giants”, wrote photographer Amos Chapple

“Four hours by speedboat from the very near village…”( Image credits: Amos Chapple)

“…is a bend in the river riddled with mammoth remains.”( Image credits: Amos Chapple)

“A paleontologist I spoke to said this website was likely formerly a marsh or bog which drowned prehistoric beasts.”( Image credits: Amos Chapple)

“The tuskers use water pumps designed for firefighting( Tohatsu are the preferred brand) to suck sea out of the river..”( Image credits: Amos Chapple)

“…and explosion it into the landscape.”( Image credits: Amos Chapple)

“Some tuskers engrave long, deep passageways( which are frightening- the walls are as soft as garden soil ). ”( Image credits: Amos Chapple)

“Others use the cutting ability of the hoses to engrave big underground caverns.”( Image credits: Amos Chapple)

“And some gouge channels straight through the topsoil.”( Image credits: Amos Chapple)

“In the hope of discovering one of the following options- a perfectly retained mammoth tusk, merit around $520 per kilogram.”( Image credits: Amos Chapple)

“A little background: Siberia’s Yakutia region sits on a footing of permafrost- permanently ice soil which lies a few feet below the surface.”( Image credits: Amos Chapple)

“In warm clay, bones would rot away within a decade. But tusks and bones like this mammoth hip can subsist tens of thousands of years formerly locked into the permafrost, stimulating Yakutia a mammoth mecca.”( Image credits: Amos Chapple)

“This 65 -kilogram tusk, photographed a few minutes after it was plucked from the permafrost, was sold for $34,000. The two men who found it uncovered three more in just over a week, including one weighing 72 kilograms.”( Image credits: Amos Chapple)

“The luck tuskers flashing a “cash” gesture. They likely gave around $100,000 in eight days.”( Image credits: Amos Chapple)

“That kind of fund in individual regions where the average salary is around $500 a few months, doesn’t ever buy a happy terminating. This memorial is for two young tuskers who built more than $100 k, partied hard-handed, then allegedly returned up the river drunk. They flipped their barge and drowned.”( Image credits: Amos Chapple)

“In the tuskers’ hometown, elusive “agents” pay cash for fresh tusks. These plastic-wrapped tusks are on a flight to the city of Yakutsk, on the way to China. This carry was covered with a tarpaulin, when I appeared under it the breath stewardess hollered at me, then marched down the aisle and slapped my camera out of my hand right after I took this photo.”( Image credits: Amos Chapple)

“But it’s not only mammoths that “the mens” uncover. This skull belong to a bison which which formerly roamed Siberia’s plains.”( Image credits: Amos Chapple)

“And this skull, is contributing to prop up a kettle, is from a woolly rhinoceros.”( Image credits: Amos Chapple)

“Another rhino skull, seeming the sun on its snout for the first time in at least 11,000 times. The boy who discovered it says that “when you find a skull, the horn is usually 15 or 20 meters away.”( Image credits: Amos Chapple)

“This 2.4 -kilogram rhino horn was sold to an agent for $14,000. It will probably be brought to an end in Vietnam, be ground into powder and sold as medicine.”( Image credits: Amos Chapple)

“The damp horn squelches like driftwood and smells like a dirty dog. The “cancer curing” rhino horn will be worth more than its weight in gold once it reaches Vietnam.”( Image credits: Amos Chapple)

“But for most tuskers, a whole summer of labour in the gluey dirt will end up losing them money.”( Image credits: Amos Chapple)

“As the pumps roar through tons of gasoline, most corps will simply turn up useless bones like these. Dr. Valery Platnikov, a paleontologist familiar with this tusking area, estimates “only around 20 -3 0 percentage[ of tuskers] will make a profit. It’s very sad … A heap of these people have taken out bank loans to pay for these expeditions.”( Image credits: Amos Chapple)

“To continue his jaunt cheap, this young tusker converted the engine from a Soviet-era Buran snowmobile into a sea pump.”( Image credits: Amos Chapple)

“When the Siberian winter kicks in, the engine will be returned to the town and refitted into its snowmobile.”( Image credits: Amos Chapple)

“The life: Most guys here will spend the entire summertime away from home and family.”( Image credits: Amos Chapple)

“In the sadnes of their tents, the tuskers chill with card plays or share a phone to watch short viral videos or porn.”( Image credits: Amos Chapple)

“This tusker penned a letter addressed to his wife that he passed on to other mortals manager back to the town, this is a note from his wife- the first news he’d had from her in a week.”( Image credits: Amos Chapple)

“This joint of reindeer is a rare treat. Most dinners are canned beef and noodles. Two of the tuskers told me they feed dog “when we have to … The tone is like bacon.”( Image credits: Amos Chapple)

“Mosquitoes are a near constant plague. Only the coldest mornings give an hour or two of relief.”( Image credits: Amos Chapple)

“On warm days, some of the men wear clothes more suited to beekeeping than hard labour.”( Image credits: Amos Chapple)

“And when the booze comes out, all inferno violates loose. Returning from a resupply run to township, these tuskers have established it halfway back to camp floundering drunkard. But soon after this portrait was taken their trip set off the rails.”( Image credits: Amos Chapple)

“Near the place where the 2015 drowning took place, these tuskers crashed their boat at quicken. A 3 a.m. salvage mission met them passed out in a boat full of waterlogged equipment.”( Image credits: Amos Chapple)

“And the drinking persisted the next day. Basically whenever liquor arrived in the camp it would be drunkard until it was gone, then after one day of sleeping it off the men would get back to work.”( Image credits: Amos Chapple)

“The damage: Ravaged landscape is the obvious answer of the tusk hunters’ techniques, but the effect on Yakutia’s waterways is taking a heavy toll. The runoff from the tuskers’ hoses extends back into the river, filling it with silt. The fish from the river near our tusking site were gone- “the mens” no longer even bother to take fishing rods.”( Image credits: Amos Chapple)

“One tusker told me, “I know it’s bad, but what can I do? No run, lots of kids.”( Image credits: Amos Chapple)

“But the number of tuskers in the Yakutia region is increasing each year, and as more narratives of instantaneou, spectacular fortune filter back to the towns, that tendency is likely to continue.”( Image credits: Amos Chapple)

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