It is illegal to mine for and sell mammoth tusks, but a group of men in a remote and isolated region of Siberia are doing it anyways. Some of them have are filthy rich from it, causing an underground economic boom. Radio Free Europe photographer Amos Chapple decided to follow the men and see what their life and job is really like.
Chapple titled his shocking series, “The Mammoth Pirates,” in which he describes tusk-hunting as “a new kind of gold rush.” The images do not paint a happy picture; they reveal environmental consequences, human despair, alcoholism, and even death.
The job is dirty, dangerous and illegal, but regardless, the men get lured in after learning Chinese buyers are willing to spend over $35,000 per tusk on the black market. When you live in a city where the average monthly wage is under $500, this is a massive sum of money.
Pictured below, “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 unearthed three more in just over a week, including one weighing 72 kilograms.”
Unfortunately, quick riches often lead to alcoholism and even death. Pictured below, “This memorial is for two young tuskers who made more than $100k, partied hard, then allegedly returned up the river drunk. They flipped their boat and drowned.”
“Near the spot where the 2015 drowning took place, these tuskers crashed their boat at speed. A 3 a.m. rescue mission found them passed out in a boat full of waterlogged equipment.”
To make matters worse, the methods they use to mine tusks are extremely taxing on the environment.
"The tuskers use water pumps designed for firefighting (Tohatsu are the preferred brand) to suck water out of the river...”
“…and blast it into the landscape.”
"Some tuskers carve long, deep tunnels (which are terrifying – the walls are as soft as garden soil)."
"And some gouge channels straight through the topsoil.” Amos Chapple
Woolly Mammoths lived in Siberia around 400,000 years ago. Due to the area’s year-round permafrost, many mammoth skeletons remain well-preserved underground to this day.
“A paleontologist I spoke to said this site was likely once a swamp or bog which drowned prehistoric beasts," writes Chapple.
“The lucky tuskers flashing a 'cash' gesture. They likely earned around $100,000 in eight days.”
“One tusker told me, 'I know it’s bad, but what can I do? No work, lots of kids.'"