Photograph by Evgenia Arbugaeva
Photograph by Evgenia Arbugaeva

Mammoth Tusks

Remains of long-gone mammoths lie buried in Siberian tundra.

This story appears in the April 2013 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Tusk and Sunset A mammoth’s tusk spikes the Siberian sky on Bolshoy Lyakhovskiy Island. Tusks that are discovered with the mammoth’s skull still attached, like this one, are not considered more valuable, notes photographer Evgenia Arbugaeva. She spent two months on the island to document the hunt for ancient ivory. “They can’t sell the skull,” she says of the tusk hunters. “There is no need to saw off the tusk from the skull. They just pull it out, like pulling out a tooth.” —Margaret G. Zackowitz

Behind the Lens

Q: You are originally from Siberia. Did you grow up close to where you photographed these tusk hunters?

A: I am from a town called Tiksi, not so far from where we were. People found mammoth tusks by accident near where I grew up. When I was young, I read a novel—there was a movie too—about a place called Sannikov Land. In the story some Arctic explorers went in search of this island, a myth, that was a tropical place. It was supposed to have mammoths. Its location was near the New Siberian Islands, where we were.

Q: The weather in your photos doesn’t look so tropical.

A: It was not very bad! We were there in summer, July and August, so the temperatures were about 8°C [46°F] during the day, minus 10°C [14°F] at night. There was not so much rain, just fog. Because the landscape there is very minimalist and simple, I was wishing for some weather, something different. During the whole time on the island we had polar day. It was light all the time. This picture was made close to the end of the season, when the sun started to set a little. We finally did get a sunset.