Of Mammoths and Men

Ancient hunters killed woolly mammoths for their meat. Today in Russia’s Arctic the search is on for their valuable tusks.

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.”

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