For Bob Shaw, the Vancouver Olympics seemed like the perfect place to hawk his Yukon woolly mammoth tusk.
During the two-week sports competition, Shaw was spotted handing out cards with a website describing the 28.5 kilogram tusk.
The mammoth ivory was found in Dominion Creek near Dawson City, and was given to Shaw by his dad.
The sale is likely not illegal, because the Yukon has only been monitoring woolly mammoth tusks since 1996. But hawking local archeological finds without any reference to certification or oversight worries Yukon heritage authorities.
“The situation is not ideal by any stretch of the imagination and we’re working to look at ways we might be able to deal with this more effectively,” said Jeff Hunston, manager of heritage resources at Tourism and Culture.
The Yukon doesn’t have the ability to enforce its Heritage Resources Act when it comes to mammoths, he said.
Most tusks are found in mining claims, and the department relies on the goodwill of miners to hand over scientifically significant finds, while doing what they wish with whatever’s left.
“We don’t know how many tusks are found in one mining season,” said Hunston.
“We’ve had a policy of allowing random tusks – fragmentary tusks – to be used commercially because part of our economy up here relies on that,” he said. “We’re obviously interested in the scientific specimens and retaining those.
“Ideally we’d like to have some sort of system where the things, when found, are reported and there is some kind of a clearance mechanism so that specimens that are scientifically important are retained in the public interest.”
But, if you were a tourist in Vancouver and took a look at the website vancouvertusk2010.com, you’d get the impression that there aren’t any rules around selling ivory tusks at all.
And that’s not true, said Hunston. But it’s just too difficult to monitor the growing trade in mammoth ivory and clear people who are dealing, he said.
“We have no idea (how many websites there are),” he added.
The market for mammoth ivory has exploded in Siberia, where melting permafrost has opened up the land and allowed the rapacious pillaging of mammoth bones.
“There are criminal elements because they found so much ivory; I mean, we’re talking a lot of money,” said Hunston.
Around 50 tonnes of mammoth relics resurface every year in Russia and the price for one kilogram can hover between $700 and $250, according to a story on Siberian mammoth ivory published in the Los Angeles Times this week.
Ivory factories have been discovered in India, which then resell ivory projects after they’ve been carved.
Closer to home, weak enforcement comes at a cost to the territory.
“We’ve had reports in the past of people coming from Alaska, buying the tusks and exporting them and then using them to fuel their carving industry which competes against ours,” said Hunston.
“Some of these are very difficult to get and we don’t get at all of them and we never will,” he said.
The Yukon developed its policy back when Dick Harrington worked as a heritage officer in the Yukon for 30 years, said Hunston. He developed friendships with the mining community and many significant finds were turned over to the government with Harrington’s coaxing.
The Yukon’s only paleontologist, Grant Zazula, now does Harrington’s job. But it’s still all based on good will.
“We find it’s not so much the miners that are the problem but the people who swirl around the industry,” said Hunston.
There’s also an issue with going too hard on the miners.
“We don’t want to be so oppressive with regulation that people ultimately do it behind our backs,” he said.
The Yukon is trying to catch as many mammoth dealers on the internet as it can, but it can’t do much enforcement after that.
The department is looking at “creative solutions” for better monitoring and certification, like creating a mammoth guild where miners could bring in discoveries and have them certified for sale.
But in the meantime, the export of mammoth tusks out of the Yukon is still untamed.
“It’s wild and woolly to say the least,” said Hunston.
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