The Ghost Lands

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The Lyakhovsky Islands are home to a high concentration of mammoth remains, drawing tusk hunters and palaeontologists to their icy, barren shores

Text and Photos Jean-François Lagrot

Amongst a bed of thick, pitch-black seaweed, Pavel Nikolskiy, a palaeontologist and senior researcher at the Moscow Geological Institute, is crouched down, searching for artefacts from the Pleistocene period. Above him, a grey, icy cliff is splintering and falling apart, cascading down in small pieces, and falling into the Laptev Sea.

Suddenly, Pavel jumps up abruptly, like a tightly wound spring that has been released. He proudly exhibits a cave lion’s molar – a remain from the Pleistocene period – in very good condition. The team is thrilled with the discovery.

Pavel is a member of a crew of 14 scientists on an expedition sponsored by the Russian Geographical Society, organised by the Mammoth Museum in Yakutsk. The team aims to find evidence of the presence of Palaeolithic hunters on this lost piece of land amongst the remote Lyakhovsky Islands, some 70 kilometres off the Siberian coast.

(Image © Jean-François Lagrot)

Their mission is guided by a set of questions: Why – and how – did the mammoth disappear some 10,000 years ago? The collective of Russian, Yakutian, Moldavian, Korean and Dutch scientists hope to get decisive answers to these questions on this expedition in far northern Russia.

This group of islands in the Russian Arctic are named after Russian merchant and explorer Ivan Lyakhov, who first explored the territory in the 1770s in search of mammoth ivory.  Given harsh meteorological conditions, the Lyakhovsky Islands are rarely visited. Temperatures can plummet to below –20°C. Crossing the strait on boats with small outboard motors built during the Soviet era is risky: Strong and sudden storms occur often in the narrow strait between the continent and Bolshoy Lyakhovsky, the southern island of the archipelago, and the largest of the Lyakhovsky Islands. Despite these tough conditions, the island attracts palaeontologists like bees to a hive.

But it’s not only scientists flocking to the islands:  The archipelago is also the hunting ground of ivory traders looking for mammoth tusks, as the islands are famous for their high density of mammoth ivory – home to more woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) remains than anywhere else on Earth, as the remains are very well preserved in the permafrost.

When ice is melting in the tundra, hundreds of tusk hunters – who have been preparing for their journey for almost a year – arrive on the islands to begin the search for this rare ivory. Every year, tonnes of ivory are collected on the Lyakhovsky Islands.

The hunters can spend up to five months living in very basic conditions – in a base camp built from wooden containers – in search of the remains. Depending on a tusk’s condition, one can fetch thousands of dollars. The tusks are typically sold to dealers in Moscow who, in turn, sell the ivory to Russian carvers, or ship the valuable wares to Hong Kong. The larger tusks, refashioned into high art by master carvers in China have reportedly fetched prices as high as USD1.5 million per piece. However, since China closed its official interior market, prices have decreased dramatically.

While there is nothing illegal about the operations of these tusk hunters – mammoth ivory can be legally traded – some scientists don’t approve of the ivory hunting, as they see it as threatening to their search for important data. Each tusk, like a fingerprint, contains valuable information. In a January 2017 interview with the Siberian Times, Vladimir Pitulko, from the Institute of the History of Material Culture of the Russian Academy of Sciences, identified tusk hunting as a form of “vandalism”, saying that the looting in the Arctic has caused extensive palaeontological, geological and archaeological damage.

However, there is an element of mutualism between the two groups: When the tusk hunters find other mammoth products, like hair or skeletons, they notify the palaeontology teams, since there’s no conflict of interest when it comes to artefacts that aren’t ivory.

Every day, both the scientists and the tusk hunters patrol the tundra and beaches to mine the melting permafrost. Rifles are usually slung across their thickly padded shoulders, as there is always a chance of a polar bear encounter at this time of the season. The hunters walk hundreds of kilometres a week, shooting ducks or geese when they chance upon a migrating flock – offering a break in the monotony of their otherwise rudimentary meals.

But experienced tusk hunters are not only interested in ivory; they are also interested in discovering other archaeological treasures. Little by little, these self-taught palaeontologists are unearthing interesting – and valuable – findings. Today, they drive the scientists’ team to a dark pond in the middle of a desert valley, some 20 kilometres away from the base. From the bottom of this pond, they extricate an impressive and well-preserved woolly rhino skull, which they have been keeping in the water for better preservation since the beginning of the summer season.

Some 30 kilometres away, another team, led by Semyon Grigoriev, chief of the expedition and head of the Mammoth Museum in Yakutsk, have made some more discoveries. Theodor Obadia, a renowned Moldavian palaeontologist, is measuring a well-preserved bone, while Semyon extracts an ancient horse skull, buried in the sand. The greatest discovery of the day is a young mammoth’s skeleton. Had it been but a few hours later, it would have been completely submerged by the tide. The team have made good inroads today.

Semyon Grigoriev, chief of the expedition and director of the Mammoth Museum in Yakutsk, makes a call to an outpost (Image © Jean-François Lagrot)

However, for Professor Hwang Woo-Suk, who has been working on mammoth cloning for several years, these discoveries are but another disappointment. The professor heads up the SOAAM Biotech Research Foundation in South Korea, and has been collaborating with Russian scientists at the North Eastern Federal University in Yakutsk, which is set to become home to the World Centre for Mammoth Studies. The South Korean specialist had joined the expedition with the hope that he would find some soft tissue remains of these giants. Active tissue cells with preserved DNA are a key component for the mammoth cloning project’s success, but he has had no luck yet.

By the late afternoon, the teams abandon their missions and make their way into the icy waters to collect their bounties of omul that have been caught in the nets. These fatty whitefish are the only source of vitamins and fresh protein that the team has consumed during the last three weeks, and are something of a delicacy on Bolshoy Lyakhovsky.

The expedition members have not answered all the questions they arrived with. A violent storm kept them from inspecting a site situated on the northern coast, where some years ago, tusk hunters found a spear made of woolly rhino horn; it is thought that this remarkable weapon may have been carved by Palaeolithic hunters.

Another expedition may be on the cards in the next decade, pending funding and logistics. Before then, a nearby island will become home to a new military base, which will house some 2,000 soldiers looking to control the northeastern territories and their growing shipping traffic in search of oil and natural gas.

Snow has begun falling, slowly covering the tundra once more. This signals that it’s time to begin preparations to make the trip back to the continent, before ice grips the island’s waters and makes a return journey impossible. But, the scientists and ivory hunters will hold out for another week. At this crucial time of the year, exhuming as much mammoth ivory and artefacts as possible is the priority.

For more stunning stories and photos, check out Asian Geographic Issue 125.

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