China will ban elephant ivory sales by the end of 2017, but the huge demand for it has found a source of supply frozen for thousands of years – from mammoths, the extinct ancestors of elephants.
On Wednesday, customs officials from a northeastern province in China announced the rare seizure of mammoth tusks – a tonne of it – smuggled in from Russia, state media reported.
The value of the seized tusks, meticulously hidden in secret compartments of a truck, wasn’t revealed but the seizure did give an idea about the insatiable demand for ivory in China.
The seizure was made at a port city called Luobei in China’s Heilongjiang province, which shares a border with Russia.
“Luobei customs found 107 mammoth tusks, along with 37 woolly rhino horn parts and 1.11 tonnes of jade in secret compartments in a truck attempting to enter China through Luobei port in mid-February,” Xinhua, China’s official news agency said in a report on Wednesday.
The driver had claimed that the truck was carrying soybeans.
State media quoted an official as saying that the longest piece of mammoth ivory seized was 1.6 metres or around 5 feet in length.
Trade in mammoth ivory is legal but barely regulated.
Chinese officials, however, said neither the truck driver nor the owner had declared what the vehicle was carrying.
“The owner, surnamed Han, had bought the truck and built secret compartments for smuggling. He was accused of smuggling goods under the country’s criminal law,” the Xinhua report said.
The haul of mammoth ivory is said to have been sourced from Siberia in Russia, where global warming has revealed the remains of the extinct animal to tusk hunters from under layers of ice.
“Nothing, however, has fuelled the mammoth tusk trade more than the rise of China, which has an ivory-carving tradition going back thousands of years. Nearly 90% of all mammoth tusks hauled out of Siberia—estimated at more than 60 tons a year, though the actual figure may be higher—end up in China,” the National Geographic said in a report.
China is the world’s largest market for ivory. Under current rules, five tonnes of ivory can be sold legally annually. But the demand, according to experts, could be for about 100 tonnes a year.
Fuelled by that demand and unchecked by regulations, mammoth tusks too could soon be extinct.