As temperatures climb in Russia’s Arctic reaches, ancient mammoth tusks are emerging from the permafrost. A group of hunters braves unimaginable conditions to find them.
Once up on a time, the woolly mammoth was the king of the Arctic. Three metres tall and weighing up to six tonnes, with tusks that curled almost four metres, they strode the steppes and tundra of these forbidding lands in their hundreds of thousands.
But then, around 10,000 B.C.E., a combination of warming weather and human hunting led to an extinction-level event. Within the space of few millennia, these giants were gone, their bodies sinking deep into the frosted landscapes of the Arctic. But now a new wave of climate change is exhuming them from the earth, and for the Yukagir tribesmen in Siberia’s farthest north, it’s created an unexpected business opportunity.
“These guys used to be reindeer hunters and fishermen, but it’s not profitable to do that anymore. Hunting for mammoth tusks has become their new means of survival.”
That’s the observation of Evgenia Arbugaeva, a photographer who spent months travelling with Yukagir hunters. Her photographs bear witness to a lifestyle of incredible hardship and privation, but one lit by rugged beauty and necessary companionship. Even in summer, temperatures on the island rarely rise above zero degrees and the landscape is racked by furious storms and blizzards.
Food is scarce, injuries common and polar bears a constant menace. Some hunters simply set off in the morning and never return.
Their main hunting ground is the dauntingly remote Kotelny Island, almost 1000 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, where some of the last remaining pockets of mammoth were thought to have roamed. Arbugaeva was taken in by military helicopter, but for the hunters, even getting to the island is a months-long ordeal. “They have to make the journey to the islands by ice, so they set out in April and then just sit around until July, when the ground thaws enough to begin the hunt. They walk for months and months on end,” Arbugaeva says. “Sometimes more than 30 kilometres per day.”
The hunters carry a stick with a metal poker on the end, which they use to test whether a browned surface is tusk or just driftwood. “It’s really just luck,” she says. “Often there’ll only be a little piece sticking out, but then if you start to dig, it will reveal a huge tusk.” Digging presents its own challenges. Only the top 20 centimetres of soil ever thaws, so excavations hit ice quickly.
Read the full story in Smith Journal Volume 27.
Photography: Evgenia Arbugaeva