This story appears in the April 2013 issue of National Geographic magazine.
One last chance. That’s all the Siberian hunter wants. For five months Karl Gorokhov has tracked his ancient prey across a desolate island in the East Siberian Sea, slogging 18 hours a day over the icy tundra. He is cold and exhausted, with a hunger so primal that he has been reduced to eating seagulls. Even the two polar bears that attacked his camp were famished; their stomachs, slit open after they were shot dead, were empty. Gorokhov, a 46-year-old with wind-chapped cheeks and a scraggly, reddish beard, heads out every day past the nine graves near his camp—the final resting places, he presumes, for unlucky souls who came to the island to escape the Soviet gulag.
Gorokhov is running out of time. Late summer blizzards are howling across Kotelnyy Island, 600 miles north of the Arctic Circle, and the deep freeze of another northern winter looms. His fingers and palms start to itch. It’s “a lucky sign,” Gorokhov said later. The itching usually strikes when he’s on the verge of finding what he’s looking for: the ivory tusks of a mammoth.
The shaggy giants that roamed northern Siberia during the late Pleistocene epoch died off about 10,000 years ago, though isolated populations lingered on islands to the north and east, the last dying out some 3,700 years ago. The mammoths’ tusks, which could spiral to more than 13 feet, are reemerging from the permafrost—and fueling a trade that benefits the people of Arctic Siberia, including the native Yakuts, an Asiatic ethnic group that speaks a language of Turkic origin. For nearly a decade Gorokhov has been a tusk-hunting pioneer, exploring one of the world’s most inhospitable expanses. Now, trusting his itchy fingers, he scours the tundra until he almost trips over the tip of a tusk. “Sometimes the tusk just appears in front of you,” he says, “as if it were guiding you all along.”
It takes Gorokhov almost 24 hours of continuous digging to extract the tusk from the pebbly ice below. The specimen that emerges is as thick as a tree trunk—150 pounds—and in near-pristine condition. Before hauling the tusk away, Gorokhov tosses a silver earring into the hole he has dug, as an offering to the local spirits. If he gets the ancient relic safely home, it could fetch more than $60,000.
The trade in mammoth ivory barely existed when Gorokhov was born in northern Siberia in 1966, on the same day, May 5, as his namesake, Karl Marx. He remembers as a child seeing rotting tusks on the banks of the Yana River, near his fishing village of Ust-Yansk. Free enterprise was banned in the Soviet Union, and many locals considered it bad luck to disturb the tusks, which some believed came from giant molelike creatures that lived deep under the permafrost.
Still, the ancient tusks held Gorokhov in their spell. Growing up in Yakutiya, a resource-rich region nearly the size of India that’s inhabited today by fewer than a million people and is officially called the Republic of Sakha, he was told that the Earth’s creator got so cold flying over this region that he dropped a wealth of treasures: gold, silver, diamonds, oil. But it was his schoolteachers’ real-life stories about 17th-century pioneers trading in mammoth tusks that captivated Gorokhov. Years later he would find library books with photographs of early 20th-century explorers: bearded men standing on Kotelnyy Island, dwarfed by mammoth tusks, their boats groaning with stacks of ivory. “I always wondered if more tusks were out there,” Gorokhov says.
Nobody, not even Gorokhov, imagined that mammoth tusks would become an economic lifeline for a region that had been largely abandoned after the shuttering of Soviet-era mines and factories. (The population of Yakutiya’s Ust-Yanskiy District, which covers a swath of tundra three times the size of Switzerland, has dropped from 80,000 to just 8,000 in the past five decades.) Now hundreds, if not thousands, of Yakutiyan men have become tusk hunters, following their ancestors’ routes, enduring the same brutal conditions—and chasing the same Paleolithic beasts.
As primitive as it may seem, the tusk rush is driven not by ancient callings but by powerful modern forces: the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ensuing frenzy of frontier capitalism, the international ban on trading elephant ivory and the search for alternatives, even the advent of global warming. Rising temperatures helped seal the mammoths’ fate near the end of the last ice age by shrinking and drowning their grassland habitats, leaving herds stranded on the isolated islands where Gorokhov now hunts. Today the thawing and erosion of the mammoth’s permafrost graveyard—and the rush of tusk hunters—are helping bring them back. Long after the first largely intact specimens were pulled out of the Siberian tundra in the 1800s, the drumbeat of discoveries is quickening. In September 2012 an 11-year-old boy on Russia’s Taymyr Peninsula stumbled upon a well-preserved adolescent mammoth, one of its ancient limbs sticking out of the half-frozen sediment.
Nothing, however, has fueled the mammoth tusk trade more than the rise of China, which has an ivory-carving tradition going back thousands of years. Nearly 90 percent of all mammoth tusks hauled out of Siberia—estimated at more than 60 tons a year, though the actual figure may be higher—end up in China, where legions of the newly rich are entranced by ivory. The spike in demand has worried some scientists, who lament the loss of valuable data; like the trunk of a tree, a tusk contains clues about diet, climate, and the environment. Even Yakutiyans wonder how quickly this nonrenewable resource will be depleted. Millions of mammoth tusks, perhaps more, are still locked in Siberia’s permafrost, but already they’re becoming harder to find.
It was hoped that mammoth ivory would ease the pressure on a far more endangered resource: elephants. Mammoth ivory is legal, even if the trade is poorly regulated. The two kinds of ivory, moreover, can be distinguished by tusk patterns known as Schreger lines. Their prices are also roughly equivalent. Still, there are no signs yet that Asian demand for elephant ivory is flagging. On the contrary, the slaughter of African elephants has intensified, and in 2012 Hong Kong customs officials seized a record six tons of elephant ivory. Further complicating the issue is that illegal elephant ivory and legal mammoth ivory often end up in the same carving workshops in China.
None of the tusk hunters I meet during an expedition to northern Yakutiya have ever traveled beyond the Siberian tundra. Yet they are all keenly aware of Chinese demand, which has doubled the price of top-grade mammoth tusks to around $400 a pound in Yakutsk, the regional capital, in the past two years. The price can double again across the Chinese border, and a finely carved full-length tusk can cost a king’s ransom. At an antiques shop in Hong Kong, I saw a ten-foot-long mammoth tusk carved with an intricate bacchanalian scene selling for $1.1 million. When tusk hunters discover that I live in Beijing, they sidle up with the same question: “Could you get me in touch with some Chinese buyers?”
All across Yakutiya the search is on. In the village of Kazachye, a hub of the trade on the Yana River, tusk hunters prepare to cross the tundra on snowmobiles, hydrofoil boats, even Soviet-era all-terrain vehicles with tank treads. At a remote glacial lake I’m probing the ancient mud and ice along the eroding shoreline with a crew of tusk hunters when a shivering young man emerges from the frigid water in a scuba suit and mask—another hunter looking for an edge. Farther along the Yana a pair of men blast water from hoses at a cliff face of blackened ice, boring tunnels into a frozen repository of mammoth tusks, bones, and carcasses.
I’ve arrived at this place, Muus Khaya, with a tusk-hunting boss who captains his boat from atop a 900-pound pile of mammoth tusks. He’s taking the ivory upriver to sell, but first he wants to visit the ice caves, where a team of Russian and South Korean scientists is extracting soft mammoth tissue in hopes of finding viable cells to clone. (See “Bringing Them Back to Life.”) A few years ago this local boss found several dozen tusks in a single ice cave here. But today his crew is downcast. The men have found only two tusks all summer—not nearly enough to get their families through winter. “This place is tapped out,” says one of the tusk hunters. “That’s why everybody is heading to the islands.”
Inspired by the explorers in those old library-book photos, Gorokhov was among the first tusk hunters, nearly a decade ago, to stay for a full season on the uninhabited New Siberian Islands off the Arctic coast. Just getting to the islands means traversing a 35-mile ice bridge across the sea in spring, then staying on the island until the ocean freezes over again six months later—or riding home earlier on small boats that can get engulfed by 15-foot waves.
If the mainland is perilous—Gorokhov says he once spent eight months lost on the tundra—the islands are far worse. Beyond the hunger and exhaustion, the polar bear attacks, and the deaths of four colleagues last summer, Gorokhov faced the hazard of Russian border guards. Swooping in on helicopter patrols, they kicked dozens of tusk hunters off the islands for lacking the proper permits, often destroying their equipment and confiscating their tusks. “You get very skilled at hiding your tusks and lying very still in the tundra,” Gorokhov says.
The tusks make it worth the risk. After a couple of expeditions to Bolshoy Lyakhovskiy Island, where Gorokhov found spectacular specimens in the seaside bluffs, he has moved on to the more distant Kotelnyy Island. Even now, as hundreds of others have rushed to join him, Gorokhov keeps a step ahead. “I’ve been doing this so long I almost think like a paleontologist,” he says. On Kotelnyy he’s noticed that as the permafrost thaws and settles each summer, mammoth tusks resting on a layer of ice below begin to peek out of the tundra. “Every year there’s another crop,” he says.
It is almost midnight at Gorokhov’s home along the Yana River, some 50 miles south of where it flows into the Laptev Sea. The embers of a September sunset streak the horizon orange—they will linger all night at this latitude—and the ghostly green lights of the aurora borealis are starting to dance across the sky. Gorokhov, just back to Ust-Yansk after his five-month island expedition, leads me to a wooden shed behind the house. Inside are nearly two dozen mammoth tusks, some wrapped in white cloth, others—including the 150-pounder he found that day on Kotelnyy—immersed in water in a large aluminum tub. “If the tusks are exposed to air, they start to crack,” Gorokhov explains. “I have to keep them in good condition. They are my future.”
The tusks in the tub—Gorokhov’s summer haul—weigh a total of 1,100 pounds. Most three-man crews bring back barely half that amount, while some wander the tundra for five months and find nothing at all. Gorokhov is also fortunate that he now has enough resources—boat, snowmobile, satellite phone, GPS—to operate independently. Many tusk hunters work for a salary or a small percentage of the profits. With prices so high, this will surely be Gorokhov’s most lucrative haul—worth anywhere from $150,000 to $300,000. But he’s in no hurry to sell locally. If he waits until winter ice-fishing season, he’ll be able to transport them up the frozen river and then by road to Yakutsk, where prices are 40 percent higher.
Gorokhov’s wife, Sardaana, and their five-year-old daughter are waiting for him in Yakutsk. He hasn’t seen them in six months. “When I get back, my wife will stroke my beard for one night and then demand that I shave it off,” he says. This may be the last time he hunts for tusks. “I haven’t seen a real summer in a decade,” he says. “I have this dream of traveling to some exotic country like India or Vietnam.” Gorokhov has never left Yakutiya. Even mild temperatures make him sweat profusely. There’s another factor that may make him postpone his vacation plans. “My wife is always telling me to stop,” he says. “But when she sees how much I found this summer, she’ll be pushing me to go back out again.”