A Mammoth of a Problem—Effectively Regulating the Russian Mammoth Tusk Ivory Trade

By: Evan Bonnstetter

While mammoth tusks have been collected from Russia for decades now, new techniques pose grave consequences for the environment. Attempts by local authorities to regulate the removal of tusks have been unsuccessful, and while the federal government possesses primary authority it has left this practice largely unregulated. While the removal and sale of mammoth tusks promises great financial reward, regulation is necessary to mitigate the negative effects. The federal government must either regulate this area itself, or enable local authorities to do so.


Eighty percent, perhaps more, of the mammoth tusks in the world are located in the Sakha Republic of Russia (the Republic).[1] In the 1990s as elephant ivory was by that time banned, mammoth tusks became an attractive alternative for the markets still demanding ivory.[2] At that time, tusks were collected from the surface, tusk hunters (tuskers) would use long poles to locate tusks in riverbeds.[3] Tusk hunting has increased precipitously with the melting of the permafrost in the region, and the process of removal has become more industrialized.[4] Now, tuskers employ increasingly destructive methods of removal.[5] Tuskers utilize powerful pumps and hoses to pump water from nearby lakes and rivers to quickly strip away land, hoping to reveal large preserved tusks.[6] The environmental damage thereby caused is severe and of serious concern.  Not only does the pumping erode riverbanks, lakeshores and nearby hillsides[7], but the runoff from the pumping enters the water sources.[8]

While scientists and fossil collectors also value the tusks, the collection and sale of tusks is driven primarily by ivory traders seeking to profit in Asia, where the demand is still great.[9] In addition, the removal of tusks is only loosely regulated; moreover, regulation is difficult given the fact that tusks are removed from barren wilderness areas by now sophisticated tuskers and purchased by elusive and well-funded buyers, both adept at evading the law.[10]

In an area where income is very low, one successful hunt in a year could enable a hunter and his family to live well for the year.[11] However, this can be an exceedingly dangerous endeavor, as the tusks are situated in extremely remote areas.[12]

Some conservationists view mammoth tusks as a better alternative to elephant ivory, because mammoths are already extinct.[13] However, there are negative consequences for elephants related to the mammoth tusk trade.[14] Ivory traders are able to conceal illegal elephant tusks by shipping them with, and labeling them as, mammoth tusks.[15] In this way, the trade in mammoth tusks actually facilitates the trade in illegal elephant tusks.[16]

The removal and sale of Russian-sourced mammoth tusks poses several issues of grave concern: (1) serious environmental damage to Siberian wilderness; (2) facilitation of the trade in elephant ivory; and (3) the destruction of scientifically significant sites. Russia should take further action to more effectively regulate the removal of mammoth tusks, striking a balance between facilitating profitable and increasingly industrial tusk hunting while also mitigating the negative consequences of the trade in mammoth ivory.



The removal of mammoth tusks is unregulated by the Russian Federal government. The only major relevant federal legislation is Federal Law No. 2395-1 “On Subsoil” (the Subsoil Law) and it contains no provisions governing mammoth remains specifically.[17] 

Tusk hunting is regulated primarily through licensure, by which the Republic grants the right to collect tusks from the surface.[18] However, the fines are relatively miniscule compared to the enormous profit potential promised by a successful hunt, although repeat offenders may face greater punishment.[19] 

There is no license permitting industrial pumping methods of removal.[20] In addition, amendments to the Subsoil Law create both administrative and criminal liability for violations of the Subsoil law that cause damage to the subsoil.[21] Compensation for damages caused by violations is also provided for under the amendment.[22]

The Sakha Republic has made continued efforts to increase its regulatory authority over mammoth remains, but these efforts have been largely unsuccessful. In 2005, Sakha Republic issued its own law regulating mammoth remains, but the law was suspended in 2007 and is no longer in effect.[23] In 2012, another reform was proposed.[24] Under this reform, the Subsoil Law would be amended to solidify local authority over remains by permitting the Republic in which the remains reside to regulate.[25] Accordingly, mammoth remains would be classified as mineral resources, rather than collectible paleontological material.[26] This proposal has not been adopted as law by federal authorities.[27] Moreover, there was some suspicion that the proposal, though couched in concern for smuggling, was actually an attempt by local authorities to undertake the removal and sale of mammoth tusks directly.[28]

Future reform should enable the federal government to both continue to legislate policy considerations applicable to subsoil generally and exercise oversight over the removal of mammoth remains. The federal government may be better situated to grapple with the environmental aspects of this issue. Additionally, Individual Republic(s) should be granted authority to establish specific regulations governing licensure and removal in that jurisdiction, within generally proscribed federal rules. 



While the ivory trade, generally, receives significant international attention, the subset of this trade involving mammoths seems to have only begun receiving more attention in the past several years. This may be because almost all of the preserved mammoth remains are located within a single Russian republic, thereby drawing less international attention. Nonetheless, this issue may fall under increased international scrutiny, evidenced by the fact that other nations have begun banning mammoth ivory specifically.[29] Absent effective Russian regulation, other nations may also decide to ban mammoth ivory, leaving tuskers no legal market to sell their tusks and driving the international ivory trade further into the black market, where the trade cannot be effectively monitored or regulated.


[1] Also referred to as Yakutia. Biznes na kostjah mamontov nado stroit’ po zakonu — glava Jakutii [Business on the Bones of Mammoths Should be Built by Law—the Head of Yakutia], Regnum (Apr. 17, 2015, 9:37 AM), https://regnum.ru/news/1916284.html [hereinafter Business]; Masami Ono, Bivni mamonta: rekordnye ob’’emy kontrabandy [Mammoth Tusks: Record Smuggling Volumes], INSMS (Mar. 14, 2016), http://inosmi.ru/social/20160314/235711230.html.

[2] Taylor Hill, The Mammoth Problem With Selling an Extinct Animal’s Ivory , TakePart (Aug. 31, 2015), http://www.takepart.com/article/2015/08/31/wooly-mammoth-and-elephants-ivory-trafficking/.

[3] Amos Chapple, The Mammoth Pirates, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, https://www.rferl.org/a/the-mammoth-pirates/27939865.html (last visited Sept. 4, 2017).

[4] Jani Actman, Woolly Mammoth Ivory is Legal, and That’s a Problem for Elephants, Nat. Geo. (Aug. 23, 2016), http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/08/wildlife-woolly-mammoth-ivory-trade-legal-china-african-elephant-poaching/.

[5] Chapple, supra note 3; Business, supra note 1.

[6] Business, supra note 1.

[7] Id.; Chapple, supra note 3.

[8] Chapple, supra note 3.

[9] Yakutia’s Mammoth Quest: Who Hunts for Tusks in ‘Ivory Rush’ and Why, Tass (June 21, 2017), http://tass.com/economy/952541.

[10] Id.

[11] See Id.

[12] 20 Starving Mammoth Tusk Hunters in Dramatic Rescue From Arctic Island, The Siberian Times (Oct. 27, 2016), http://siberiantimes.com/other/others/news/n0786-20-starving-mammoth-tusk-hunters-in-dramatic-rescue-from-arctic-island/.

[13] Andrew E. Kramer, Trade in Mammoth Ivory, Helped by Global Thaw, Flourishes in Russia, N.Y. Times (Mar. 25, 2008), http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/25/world/europe/25iht-mammoth.4.11415717.html?mcubz=3.

[14] Actman, supra note 4.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Federal Law No. 2395-1 on Subsoil (Feb. 21, 1992) (as amended).

[18] Licensing is performed by the Republics, pursuant to Federal Law No. 3314-1 On the Order of Putting Into Effect the Regulations on the Procedure for Licensing the Use of Subsoil (July 15, 1992) (as amended).

[19] See Chapple, supra note 3.

[20] Vladimir Tayursky, Bivni priravnjajut k poleznym iskopaemym [Tusks are Equated to Minerals], Rg.Ru (Dec. 7, 2012), https://rg.ru/2012/12/07/reg-dfo/dobycha.html.

[21] Federal Law No. 74-FZ amending Law No. 2395-I on Subsoil (June 14, 2012).

[22] Id.

[23] Law of the Republic of Sakha No. 425-III (Dec. 12, 2003) (as amended); Yakutia’s Mammoth Quest, supra note 9; Business, supra note 1.

[24] Business, supra note 1; Tayursky, supra note 20.

[25] Tayursky, supra note 20.

[26] Id.

[27] Business, supra note 1.

[28] Ono, supra note 1.

[29] Actman, supra note 4.