‘Mammoth pirates’ spend months in the Siberian wilderness trying to strike it rich — take a look

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Amos Chapple/Radio Free Europe

The woolly mammoth, an extinct species that disappeared from Earth between 14,000 and 10,000 years ago, is making a comeback.

As conservation groups and governments boost efforts to crack down on the illegal elephant ivory trade, there’s been an increase in demand for mammoth tusks, or “ethical ivory.” These fossils, harvested illegally from Russia’s Artic North, can fetch thousands of dollars.

The people who excavate the tusks, called “tuskers” or “mammoth pirates,” spend months at a time in the Siberian wilderness in the hopes of striking it rich.

Photographer Amos Chapple of Radio Free Europe gained exclusive access to an illicit excavation site. He shared some of his photos with us. You can read the full story here.


Summertime brings tuskers to Russia’s Arctic North, where mammoth skeletons have been perfectly preserved under frozen ground, or permafrost, for millennia.

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Amos Chapple/Radio Free Europe

In its heyday, the mammoth weathered the cold with a dense undercoat and long, curving tusks, which may have been used for foraging for food beneath the snow.

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A ladder leans against a life-size model of a woolly mammoth at the Karpin Abentura wildlife park outside Bilbao, Spain.
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Vincent West/Reuters

Source: National Geographic


Today, ivory tusks are intricately carved and sold for more than $1 million each. Chapple says their high prices actually drive increased demand in “status-mad” China.

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YouTube/Cody Blackett

Source: Radio Free Europe


At one time, tuskers could extract skeletons from the ground using sharpened sticks. But as the “low hanging fruit” disappeared from the permafrost, they became more creative.

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Amos Chapple/Radio Free Europe

Water pumps designed for firefighting draw water from the river and melt away the surface of the permafrost. Here, we see a mammoth’s hip bone become exposed.

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Amos Chapple/Radio Free Europe

Some bore tunnels as deep as 60 meters into the hillside …

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Amos Chapple/Radio Free Europe

… while others form massive caverns for excavation. Meanwhile, environmental-protection officers, accompanied by police, roam the wilderness looking for tuskers.

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Amos Chapple/Radio Free Europe

Fines run about $45, though three strikes can lead to serious consequences. One tusker told Chapple, “I know it’s bad, but what can I do? No work, lots of kids.”

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Tuskers use the skull of a long-extinct woolly rhinoceros to prop up a kettle.
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Amos Chapple/Radio Free Europe

The life of a tusker is not so glamorous. They eat canned beef and noodles most days and stay in tents. “Mosquitoes are a near constant plague,” Chapple writes.

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Amos Chapple/Radio Free Europe

Most will end up losing money over the course of the summer, between the cost of gasoline for the pumps and other gear and necessities.

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Amos Chapple/Radio Free Europe

For the lucky few, it all becomes worth it when they uncover the holy grail. This 143-pound tusk sold for $34,000 in cash. It will likely be carved and fetch tens of thousands more.

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Amos Chapple/Radio Free Europe

Learn more about Siberia’s tuskers over at Radio Free Europe.