In July 2016, photographer Amos Chapple went to see the mammoth pirates.
Chapple has worked extensively in northern Siberia, near the Arctic Circle. In the winter of 2015-16, he was there again on assignment. Then a local contact gave him a tip.
The contact said something new was happening in the region a kind of illicit gold rush.
With elephant ivory banned, ivory dealers have been turning to mammoth remains instead and paying people to go out and find them.
The work is dangerous, environmentally destructive, illegal, and, for some prospectors, wildly profitable. A single tusk can rake in more cash than five years’ worth of wages.
The contact had already gone on one expedition and was preparing to go out again. Chapple managed to persuade the contact to take him along on the condition that he not reveal any names or locations. So in July 2016, Chapple found himself camped out in the Russian woods with a company of amateur tusk hunters.
For the first week, he wasn’t allowed to take a single picture. It was only after days of ingratiating himself with the men by cooking or doing chores around the camp that they let him bring out his camera.
His pictures first appeared on RadioFreeEurope/Radio Liberty. This is what he saw.
Tusk hunting has become an almost industrial-scale endeavor.
Most areas don’t have mammoth tusks, but the extreme cold of Russia’s far north has preserved many remains. Everyday Russians would often spot tusks or other bones poking out of hillsides and riverbanks.
For a long time, this kind of visual prospecting was the usual way to hunt tusks. The yield was limited to what you could see. If you were very serious, you might have a metal probe to poke into the ground, but that was about it.
Today, heavy, noisy water pumps created from firefighting equipment replace shovels and probes.
The work is done in the summer, when it’s not so cold. Most of the men have other seasonal jobs during the winter.
Instead of a single dig, entire hillsides now lie exposed.
The hoses blast away at the hard, frozen soil, slowly excavating entire hillsides.
If the spray doesn’t reveal anything, the hunters carve out long, dark, claustrophobic tunnels and caverns.
“I was always trying to limit my time in there,” said Chapple. The tunnels were haphazardly carved and incredibly dangerous. Every five or 10 minutes, there was a thud as part of the wall or ceiling thawed and gave way, falling into the gluck of soft, glue-like mud.
“There were some places I could have gone into where I was just too frightened,” said Chapple. In one area, an entire section of the dig had fallen in overnight. In another place, a collapse broke a man’s leg and sent him to the hospital. They could not save the limb.
Back in camp, it wasn’t much easier for the men. Or for Chapple.
The men on these expeditions camp out in wild, hidden areas for weeks or months at a time. Some bring cards or smartphones, but drinking seemed to be one of the most popular activities. Chapple brought four liters of beer along to help celebrate if the men found something. The hunters stole it and drank it all on the first day.
Sometimes the drinking made getting along easier, but the mood could also turn dark very quickly. The men were very clan-like and distrustful of outsiders, said Chapple. Fights and threats of violence were not uncommon. Even Chapple wasn’t immune.
There was one guy, for instance, who was more or less the leader. “The first thing he did, he grabbed me by the hat and pulled me across the table,” said Chapple. The man shouted in Chapple’s ear that he was in charge. Got it?
Later, after some heavy drinking, the same man came into the camp and drunkenly swung a metal bar at Chapple’s head. It missed, and Chapple made a hasty retreat as the man slumped down onto a bench, shouting for the dog.
But for the men, all the risk and hardship can be worth it. Because the payoff if they find a tusk is huge.
Each tusk is worth a small fortune.
A single 140-pound specimen was later sold for $34,000. That’s more than five years of wages in a region where the average person only makes about $500 a month. And that was just one of several tusks the expedition found that month.
When Chapple asked the men what they planned to do with the money, some said they wanted to put their kids through school. Many of them talked about moving to the city. But Chapple noted that once they got a score, some of the hunters seemed more interested in drinking their paychecks than investing them.
But despite this huge potential, the vast majority of hunters end up losing money.
Only about 20-30% of the tuskers make a profit every season, according to Dr. Valery Platnikov (who commented in RadioFreeEurope’s piece). Many people sink a significant amount of their savings into these expeditions, even taking out bank loans, but they may spend entire seasons for nothing. Even if tusks are found, that doesn’t mean an equal share for all. A lot of the wealth stays with the leaders.
Zooming out, the toll of all this work can be severe for both the men and the land.
The Federal Security Service and local police patrol these areas in boats and on foot, hoping to catch the tusk hunters. There were two separate scares in Chapple’s three weeks there. Though he was not digging himself, Chapple didn’t want to try explaining that to the authorities.
The Federal Security Service doesn’t care as much about the tusks themselves as what the hunters are doing to the environment. All the silt and mud from the tuskers’ work washes down into the regions’ rivers, choking the lift out of them. Many people in the region don’t even bother trying to fish those rivers anymore.
I know its bad, but what can I do?” one tusker told Chapple. “No work, lots of kids.
Further afield, scientists like University of Michigan professor Dan Fisher worry about the loss of valuable specimens. Mammoths grew their tusks throughout their lifetime, which means scientists like Fisher can analyze them to learn more about their life,like rings on a tree.
For years, Fisher and other scientists came to Siberia to find and study these tusks. But more and more of their study sites have been washed away by tusk hunters.
What’s more, Fisher said that because of their reluctance to reveal their dig sites to others, the hunters often hide or destroy non-tusk material. Mammoth molars, parts from other animals, even artifacts from ancient humans can end up at the bottom of these silt-ruined rivers.
“It won’t see the light of day for many centuries,” said Fisher. “It certainly won’t be collected by us.”
The tusks are bound for destinations further on, likely China.
90% of Russia’s mammoth ivory ends up in China and Hong Kong, which are also the main end point for illegal elephant ivory. Some have hoped that the legal mammoth ivory would sate the demand for elephant products, but it’s not clear whether it’s just made it easier to mask illegal elephant ivory.
After three weeks, Chapple left the mammoth hunters.
The tuskers stayed behind. It’s not clear what happened to them afterward, but they likely continued to work at the site, eventually finishing as the summer ended. Then they’d pack their generators, tents, and gear into motorboats and head back to their towns.
There, a lucky few would celebrate their newfound wealth or, for most of them, make do with their losses and plan ahead for the next round of digs.
After all, there’s always next summer.