He traveled with men who illegally mine for tusks of the long-extinct woolly mammoth. In Siberia, a vast and isolated region of Russia, these men go on real treasure hunts. Between hard work, fear of getting caught, hordes of mosquitoes and desperate drinking, they struggle to find the treasure and make money, but also to survive. And a talented photographer captured it all in a series of amazing images.
[Editor’s note: you can read the full story about Siberian tuskers and see more photos on this link]
You probably know that elephant tusks are extremely pricey and desired in some parts of the world. But since hunting elephants for tusks has been more highly controlled, the “ethical ivory” came to replace it. Visiting “agents” from China pay thousands of dollars for the tusks of the woolly mammoth, which became extinct around 10,000 years ago. Their remains lie locked in permafrost, where they can stay perfectly preserved for ages. And the tuskers leave their families for months to find the tusks and turn them into money.
Amos Chapple followed the tuskers on their hunt in 2016, capturing their lives and work. While this type of tusking doesn’t involve killing animals, it’s still unethical. Due to the methods they use to find the remains, these tuskers harm the nature. They use power pumps to draw water from rivers, making the valley filled with exhaust smoke. They use the pressurized water to wash out the permafrost in search of remains. And as they do it, the slurry water runs straight back into the rivers. Because of this, the tusk mining is illegal. The fine, though, is only $45. But if they get caught and fined three times, they can face more serious fines and jail.
The average salary in this region is less than $500, and finding woolly mammoth remains could make these men earn hundreds of thousands in a couple of months. Another long-extinct animal’s horn – one of woolly rhinoceros, is also considered a treasure. They can sell it for huge amounts of money, and it usually ends up ground into powder which is used as medicine in some parts of the world. But this doesn’t come without the risk, and not only the risk of getting caught.
First of all, not everyone will be lucky to find the horns. In the end, this journey may cause them to lose the money instead of earning it. They spend entire summer far from their home and family, and the atmosphere in the community can get rough. When alcohol gets involved, fights aren’t an uncommon occurrence. And on top of it all, the men are constantly exposed to hordes of mosquitoes.
Despite the various risks, the time they spend away from families and the damage they do to the environment – the number of woolly mammoth tusk hunters in this region continues to grow. It seems that, for them, the prize is worth the risk, and we are yet to see the consequences.
About the Artist
Amos Chapple is from New Zealand, and he makes “news-flavored travel photography.” His photos bring incredible stories from all over the world. To see more of his work, make sure to visit his website, give him a follow on Instagram and like his Facebook page.
[All photos by Amos Chapple/RFE/RL and used with permission]