TORONTO—In 2015, Andy Huynh accompanied game wardens in Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve to ward off poachers. After a decade of service in the Middle East with the US Special Operations Forces, he figured little could shake him. But when he saw his first poached rhino, with his face half sawn away for the horn, he turned and threw up. “I knew then and there that I wanted to dedicate my life to fighting wildlife crime,” Huynh said.
He began working with various non-profit wildlife conservation organizations and then joined a series of UN and Interpol undercover operations in China and Vietnam to stop the illegal trade in elephant ivory. Now he’s extended his definition of wildlife to the distant past: the great tusked mammoths and mastodons of the Ice Age.
At the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) annual meeting here last week, Huynh argued that the growing trade in ivory from the ancient carcasses now emerging as Arctic permafrost thaws is sustaining a global market that is causing the deaths of living elephants. He urged paleontologists to speak out against the fossil ivory trade — and to avoid dealing with unscrupulous collectors who might be involved.
Some researchers wonder if there’s enough data to prove ancient ivory is really driving demand for elephant tusks, but others at the meeting welcomed his call to action. “Andy did an excellent job of making his point,” says Thomas Holtz, a paleontologist at the University of Maryland, College Park. “Many SVP talks deal with mass extinctions or even the death of an individual, but these are separated from us by an infinity of time. This dealt with death and suffering that is happening right now.”
Ivory from African and Asian elephants sells for up to $3,000 a kilogram on the black market, particularly in Southeast Asia, where it is mixed into traditional medicine and carved into status-symbolizing statues and other jewelry. About 55 African elephants are killed for their tusks every day. But tighter poaching laws and the closure of legal ivory carvings in China in 2018 have made it harder for suppliers – who are sometimes linked to criminal syndicates – to source elephant ivory, Huynh said. “To offset the falling supply, organized crime has turned to using mammoth ivory.”
According to Huynh, criminal organizations in Russia pay good money for private tusk hunters to find and extract mammoth ivory from the melting permafrost. “The rest of the skeleton is either destroyed in place or has been lost to erosion,” he said.
He pointed to a 2014 report by conservation researchers Lucy Vigne of Oxford Brookes University and Esmond Bradley Martin, which found that sales of mammoth ivory have increased from almost nothing since 2002 to about 40% of all ivory items sold in Beijing and almost 70% had risen in Shanghai. Huynh also presented more recent, unpublished data from a joint operation by Interpol and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in 2018-19, which indicated that both elephant and mammoth ivory continue to enter the Vietnamese and Chinese markets , at times mainly about Russian shipping containers also contain illegal drugs and weapons.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora monitors and regulates trade in items such as elephant ivory and rhino horn, but provides no explicit protection for extinct animals such as mammoths or woolly rhinos. “So the trade in mammoth ivory remains unchecked and growing… and the global criminal network has clearly taken advantage of this loophole,” Huynh said.
The damage extends to today’s elephants, he argued. He noted that although mammoth ivory was rushing into the market, overall demand for elephant ivory appeared to have remained constant or even increased. His conclusion: Old ivory does not displace elephant ivory, but keeps the market’s appetite alive. Some smugglers may even pass off elephant ivory as legal mammoth ivory, he says, noting that it can be difficult to distinguish between the materials in smaller pieces like jewelry and beads.
Vigne, who didn’t attend the conference but watched a recording of Huynh’s talk, says it’s unclear how mammoth ivory affects demand for elephant ivory in mainland China. Some research suggests that the rise in mammoth ivory has led to less elephant poaching. Vigne’s own visits to mainland China’s ivory markets suggest that “Mammoth ivory certainly helped reduce elephant ivory, but it also paved a way there.” [continue to sell] Elephant ivory,” she says. “Well, it’s a tricky thing.”
What is needed, says Vigne, is more information on how much processed elephant ivory is being traded under the guise of legal mammoth ivory. Victoria Herridge, paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London, agrees. “You need passionate, activist voices [like Huynh’s]but you also need data.”
Thomas Carr, a paleontologist at Carthage College and Huyhn’s undergraduate mentor, notes that paleontology, too, has an interest in restricting trade: the sale of fossil ivory reduces the number of mammoth carcasses available for study. “When fossils for tusks are destroyed, so much data is lost,” he says. “It’s a loss for science and it’s a loss for society.”
The SVP and the broader paleontological community can help, says Huynh, by making public statements and pressuring elected officials and international regulators. Scientists should also avoid obtaining samples from unscrupulous tusk hunters, he says, as they may be working with collectors who are also employed by criminal organizations. Holtz agrees that paleontologists should be doing more, saying, “I don’t think most of us understood that fossils were transported in the same shipments as, say, heroin.”
Jessica Theodor, a University of Calgary paleontologist and outgoing SVP president, says the SVP has for decades issued statements denouncing the loss of scientifically significant fossils to commercial trade. However, after Huynh’s presentation, she says the Society will set up a task force to investigate what else it can do to protect mammoth ivory.