Illegal mammoth ivory trade impossible to monitor

Yukon has a one-man army charged with monitoring the huge mammoth ivory trade. It's paleontologist Grant Zazula, who spends his summers trying to charm placer miners into parting with the precious ivory they've dug up.

Yukon has a one-man army charged with monitoring the huge mammoth ivory trade.

It’s paleontologist Grant Zazula, who spends his summers trying to charm placer miners into parting with the precious ivory they’ve dug up.

But he’s in a race to meet the miners before the commercial ivory dealers do.

It’s impossible to say the size of the illegal ivory trade, but government officials know it exists.

Mammoth ivory is a hot commodity around the world. Its trade has been bolstered by the criminalization of elephant ivory. In 1996, the Yukon government put in place the Historic Resource Act to help crack down on illegal ivory dealers.

Since then, the government has decided to be less strict and more discretionary in their attempts to regulate the trade.

“There was a provision to be heavy-handed if and when necessary,” said Rick Lemaire, director of the Yukon’s Tourism Department’s cultural services branch.

“However, (in practice), there was a decision to go the other way.”

The Yukon government “encourages” placer miners to donate the mammoth ivory they find for the sake of science. That way, the government can get the first look at fossils to determine which ones should be archived and which should be sold.

The only enforcement the government uses is Zazula.

“It’s not a punitively or rigorously enforced regime by any means,” said Lemaire.

It’s illegal to not tell the government you’ve found mammoth ivory, but the government has interpreted that loosely.

“We have the clout if we need it, but we’ve decided not to (use it),” said Lemaire.

Such clout would be wielded if a massive and scientifically valuable discovery were made, but there’s no way to know whether a find of such magnitude could simply be dug, sold and exported without anyone knowing.

No one has ever been charged with breaching the act.

“The greatest enforcement regime in the world with 16 officers patrolling regularly would not provide an opportunity to stop that from happening if you have a determined smuggler on your hands,” said Lemaire.

The Yukon does have a legal avenue for exporting mammoth ivory.

“(The tusk’s) biggest value is probably on the international market and we also serve as the local authority on any export permit for any tusks of any size like that,” said Lemaire.

“For it to be commercially traded on the international market would require our scrutiny.”

The government signs anywhere between 10 to 15 “federal cultural export permits” a year, said Lemaire.

“Normally, to make it worth their while (an exporter) would come in with a pickup and load about a thousand pounds per permit,” he said.

“Each tusk piece can weigh a hundred or two hundred pounds.”

The department only signs away tusks that don’t have scientific value, said Lemaire.

But it’s impossible to tell if the approach is working, because both the scientific community and the commercial traders of ivory are looking for the same thing—large intact mammoth tusks.

“There’s a big market for ivory in the East so a lot of the stuff could possibly go into that trading in the East because elephant ivory is outlawed,” said Lemare. “Some of it would find its way in those markets.”

“Particularly in the United States, there’s a big private-collector industry for fossil ivory and the whole tusk and fossils in general,” he said.

“It’s a bit more of an industry than it is in Canada, but it does exist and there are collectors.”

The trouble is getting miners to go to the government before they go to a dealer.

“We suspect that an (illegal trade) happens, and it probably happens on an occasional basis,” said Lemaire. “Again, we go back to this long-standing tradition that we have of trying to encourage those friendships and working relationships with the placer miners to create a disincentive to not have it happen that way.

“But there’s no doubt it does

happen,” he said. “It’s one of those markets that, even with a terrifically stringent enforcement regime, would still happen.”

“I know there are traders in Alaska that drive down in their pickups and probably take a spin through the gold fields. It does happen and we do work with various other agencies to make them aware that these things should be monitored where possible.”

Alaska doesn’t have to regulate fossils found anywhere except on federal lands like parks. Otherwise, the fossils belong to whoever owns the land on the surface.

In Canada, the ivory belongs to the Crown and hence the public.

Whatever Zazula finds is sent to the paleontology archives in Whitehorse, a collection that now holds thousands of specimens, said Lemaire.

The government also holds a booth at the gold show and offers awards at the Beringia Centre for miners that donate large tusks.

The ivory jewelry trade is much less monitored, said Lemaire.

“Carved items like jewelry wouldn’t come to our attention,” he said.

“We’ve tried to estimate (the size of the jewelry trade) at various times and it’s such a big market that has so many variables that it’s really impossible to estimate.”

Jewellers use more fragmentary pieces of ivory, said Lemaire, and those don’t have much scientific value.

“We know (the trade) is sizable and we know the Yukon is the source of much, if not all, ivory fossil that’s found.”

Contact James Munson at

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