Ivory fossil sale helps nomadic herders in Siberia
Tom Parfitt, Guardian News Service, Moscow
Russia's first auction of woolly mammoth tusks has been held in Siberia, where remains of the extinct beast frequently emerge from the permafrost.
More than US$30,000 worth of tusks and bones went on sale on Feb. 27 in Yakutsk, 5,600km east of Moscow.
The government of Yakutia, an autonomous republic in the Russian federation, is attempting to regulate the sale of the precious ivory in order to create a cottage industry that could benefit local reindeer herders.
Between 30 and 50 tons of the tusks are gathered in Yakutia every year during the summer thaw. The remains are largely found in the north of the republic, on the shores of the Arctic Ocean.
Naturalists support the sale of this so-called fossil ivory -- which is not limited by international agreements -- because it reduces demand for black-market elephant tusks.
The last mammoths died out about 4,000 years ago, but they were once common in Europe, northern Asia and North America.
Tatyana Gladkova, deputy minister of entrepreneurship and tourism in Yakutia, said there was some opposition to the auction, but most locals support it.
"There are those who say that to sell the riches of the republic abroad is a bad thing.
"But the problem is, if you don't gather the tusks and bones in time they very quickly begin to decompose. So we've decided, better to make money than to let these riches go to waste."
Regular auctions are expected in the future and it is hoped the trade will become a major industry supporting the diamond- and gold-mining that dominate the local economy, she said.
A recently introduced law allows the nomadic herders who gather the bones and tusks from the swamps where they emerge in warm weather to sell up to 500 kilograms to licensed traders each year.
Twelve of the 14 lots in Sunday's auction went to Japanese and Indian buyers, with one 15kg tusk fetching $2,500. Whole tusks are mounted or engraved, while shards of ivory are turned into jewelry.
Last year, craftsmen in Scotland began using mammoth ivory as decorative inlay on the drones of bagpipes. Supplies of ivory for local artisans will be subsidized.