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How protecting extinct woolly mammoths could help save the elephant

Wildlife specialist Iris Ho says the unregulated mammoth ivory trade provides cover for elephant poachers

A rare and complete woolly mammoth skeleton, pictured at auction in March 2019, includes ivory tusks favoured by elephant poachers. (Philip Fong/AFP/Getty Images)
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Woolly mammoths may have gone extinct over 10,000 years ago, yet a delegation from Israel hope to next week have the beast declared endangered — in an effort to protect elephants.

As climate change melts permafrost in parts of Siberia, where the woolly mammoth once roamed, fossilized prizes are being uncovered and illegally traded as tusks from the animal’s modern day relative.

“It’s very easy to launder illegal elephant ivory as mammoth ivory,” said Iris Ho, a wildlife policy specialist for Humane Society International.

A proposal to list woolly mammoths as endangered will be presented at this year’s conference of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

That would “regulate and monitor the international commercial trade in mammoth ivory trade,” said Ho, who did not help write the proposal.

Elephants prepare to cross a road as cars drive by in Northern Botswana. Israel hopes a proposal to declare the woolly mammoth endangered will help protect the African elephant from poachers. (Monirul Bhuiyan/AFP/Getty Images)

The mammoth ivory trade is largely unregulated and undocumented, according to the proposal.

Listing the woolly mammoth as endangered in Appendix II of the CITES — which includes species not necessarily facing extinction but requiring protection from commercial trade — will offer oversight and information about its “implications for living elephant populations.”

Israel hopes such a listing will help reduce ivory trade overall.

Under the proposal, however, trading mammoth ivory would not become illegal. Ho advocates for a ban on the trade of woolly mammoth ivory in U.S.

Lucrative business

To the untrained eye, ivory mammoth tusks are largely indistinguishable from those of elephants. The differences, however, lie in something called Schreger lines — visible artifacts in the cross-sections of ivory.

However it’s not a fool-proof system, says Ho.

“For smaller, carved ivory items — which are quite common place in antique stores and other businesses — sometimes it’s impossible to tell,” she told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

Tusks from the two animals often sit side-by-side in shops. Good quality mammoth ivory can fetch at least $500 US per kilogram, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Schreger lines seen in ivory from a mammoth tusk, left, and an elephant tusk, right. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Despite growing restrictions on trading elephant ivory — including a 2018 ban in China, one of the world’s biggest markets for elephant ivory — it’s a thriving business.

The World Wildlife Fund estimates that 20,000 African elephants are killed each year for their tusks.

In Canada, it remains legal to trade ivory domestically from elephants killed before 1990 when an international ban on commercial trade came into effect. France, the U.K., the U.S., Taiwan, Singapore and Israel have all taken steps to ban ivory.

Beyond elephants

Ho acknowledges that the proposal could have unintended negative consequences, including increased impacts on elephants if mammoth ivory is no longer an option, and greater pressure on enforcement officials to police the source of ivory.

She highlights that other, non-animal materials can be used to make sculptures that are typically carved into ivory chunks.

Confiscated ivory tusks are shown inside a suitcase at London’s Heathrow Airport. (Lily Martin/CBC)

Elephants aren’t the only consideration when it comes to the push to protect woolly mammoths, either.

Ivory hunters who dig for the lucrative mammoth tusks in the Arctic are taxing the already delicate environment that faces the effects of a warming climate.

“It’s not just because of the climate change that ice is melting. There also has been a deliberate attempt to dig out mammoth ivory in Siberia in Russia,” Ho said.

“Such digging … actually has caused permanent ecological damage in that area because you’re using very high-pressure like water pumps,” which breaks up permafrost and has effects on the surrounding land, she added.

It’s expected delegates will vote on Israel’s proposal next week.