Smugglers have allegedly used mammoth tusks to disguise the illegal sale of elephant ivory, encouraging poaching and making it harder to enforce the ban.
Melting permafrost in the Siberian tundra in far-eastern Russia has revealed up to 150 million mammoth carcasses.
It is estimated that 100 tonnes of mammoth tusk is exported by the country every year, primarily to China – the world’s largest market for ivory.
Strict rules have controlled the sale of elephant ivory since 1989, when 182 signatory countries to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) agreed to ban the sale of the material.
But these restrictions don’t apply to mammoth ivory, giving smugglers a way to launder elephant ivory, passing it off as belonging to the elephants’ prehistoric ancestors.
Iris Ho, the wildlife programme manager at Humane Society International, said: “You can sell a mammoth tusk and transport it without any proof of documentation, so you can import and export it very easily.
“So, sellers will ship both elephant and mammoth tusks in the same containers to try and smuggle illegal ivory in with the legal mammoth tusks.”
Smugglers have allegedly gone as far as colouring elephant ivory to make it look more like mammoth tusk, which tends to be a darker colour and streakier than elephant ivory.
According to the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), it is extremely difficult for customs officers to differentiate between real and fake ivory, let alone elephant and mammoth ivory.
“This profusion of substances aiming to mimic ivory, and the dozens of terms for them, can make this area extremely difficult for police and Customs officers, who are unlikely to have specialised knowledge” IFAW said in a report.
“Although various tests can be used to differentiate between elephant ivory and that of other mammals, and to tell the difference between ivory and most synthetic substances, none of these methods are foolproof.”
No extinct animal has ever before been given protected status by CITES, which accords varying degrees of protection to more than 35,000 species, but a proposal to curb the trade in mammoth tusks will be voted on at the CITES meeting in Johannesburg this month.
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The proposal by Israel states: “The rise in trade in mammoth ivory poses an indirect threat to elephant populations in the wild by creating a simple way to enable trade in ‘laundered’ elephant ivory.”
The secretary-general of CITES, John Scanlon, said: “This is the first long-extinct animal considered for a restriction in trade.
“We have to work out how we might legally do this.”
In 2010, US first lady Michelle Obama wore a mammoth tusk necklace, soon after a journal report had cautiously endorsed the material, saying it woud “reduce demand for elephant ivory from Africa. Probably.”
But animal rights groups said anything that encourages the fashion for ivory is problematic.
“All ivory, even if legally sourced, fuels the ivory trade,” Save the Elephants stated in a campaign.
A third of the population of African elephants has been wiped out over the last decade, a recent survey found, with only 350,000 wild elephants now remaining on the continent.
Africa once had an estimated 20 million elephants. In 1979, there were only 1.3 million.