Ivory from the tusks of extinct mammoths is being used as a legal substitute for the stuff provided by its living elephant kin, but poor quality and a finite supply means it will never replace it, experts say.
BANGKOK Ivory from the tusks of extinct mammoths is being used as a legal substitute for the stuff provided by its living elephant kin, but poor quality and a finite supply means it will never replace it, experts say.
"Russia has been exploiting mammoth ivory since 1800," said Esmond Bradley Martin of the East African Wildlife Society, who has done a number of studies on the ivory trade. "We are trying to encourage it as a substitute for elephant ivory," he said from the sidelines of the Conference on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
Ivory is a jumbo issue at CITES, with Namibia pushing for permission to sell two tons of it per year. Other states such as Kenya are opposed to any further trade on the grounds that poachers will gun down their elephants as they seek to launder "dirty supplies" with legal ivory.
CITES has allowed only a few, limited ivory auctions since a global ban on the trade was imposed 15 years ago.
But the long-extinct mammoth obviously cannot be listed as endangered under CITES, and so trade in its products are legal.
A study by Martin showed that from 19994 to 2001 almost 70,000 kgs (154,300 lb) of mammoth ivory were imported by Hong Kong for re-export to China, where an economic boom is fueling demand for the substance.
Ivory is used in a variety of ways for decorative carvings and jewelry.
Mammoth and elephant ivory are fairly easy to distinguish, as the latter's grain has distinctive cross-hatched lines. Mammoth ivory also tends to smell.
Mammoth ivory is abundant in Russia, the biggest source of it. Martin said it is often found on riverbanks during the brief Siberian summer. But its quality does not match that of elephant.
"It is never going to be a substitute," said Tom Milliken, a Zimbabwe-based director of TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network. "It is very brittle and breaks a lot," he said.
And, of course, the supply will eventually run out since mammoths stopped reproducing long ago.
"With international trade in elephant ivory closed down, trade in mammoth ivory has emerged as virtually the only alternative acceptable to the international market, says one Web site, Canada Fossils, which asks if prospective buyers are interested in bulk mammoth tusk.
Some conservationists who hope the elephant doesn't follow the mammoth down the path to extinction hope there will be buyers.