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.