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The Mammoth Pirates (rferl.org)
139 points by devnonymous 121 days ago | hide | past | web | 67 comments | favorite

Sales of mammoth ivory should be banned, just like the sales of elephant ivory. Distinguishing mammoth ivory from elephant ivory is pretty hard and as a result sales of mammoth ivory can act as a cover for sales of illegal elephant ivory.

"Distinguishing mammoth ivory from elephant ivory is pretty hard"

No, it isn't.


"as a result sales of mammoth ivory can act as a cover for sales of illegal elephant ivory."

[citation needed]

What would be the economic incentive for selling the (breathtakingly expensive) elephant ivory as the (much cheaper, though still expensive) fossil ivory?

You need a lab to tell them apart yeah. Also note that some of these methods are destructive. Please note that I've had a short email discussion about this people from the Wildlife lab, so I have an OK understand of the issue.

> [citation needed]

Ebin reference xddddd.


You misunderstand the situation. Poachers would kill elephants for ivory, pass it off as mammoth ivory for import reasons and then sold it as ivory again.

"You need a lab to tell them apart yeah."

No, in general, you don't need a lab to tell them apart when they're in the raw state. Fossil ivory is pretty distinctive in appearance.

You could maybe stain modern ivory to make it look like fossil ivory, but that would make it considerably less valuable.

And yeah, you could label the containers of modern ivory as fossil ivory, but you could also label them as medical supplies, soybeans, or wingnuts. It isn't going to fool anyone who actually opens the container.

Are you an expert on this?

No, I'm not an expert, but I've seen plenty of artifacts that are made from both fossil ivory and modern ivory. They simply don't look alike, not even to a casual glance.

How many exampes of both have you seen, in person?

I won't dispute that fossil ivory could possibly be bleached to look like modern ivory (which would have no effect on the elephants or arguably a positive effect, since it would be eating some of the market for the modern stuff), or that modern ivory could be stained to look like fossil ivory (which would devalue it).

I just don't see any economic incentive to do either one.

The situation only holds when the market price of mammoth ivory is roughly the same as that for elephant ivory. If mammoth ivory was much cheaper than elephant ivory, then killing elephants wouldn't be economical. Unfortunately, mammoth ivory is an extractive process, like mining, so it is unclear if the price could be brought down and kept there for an extended period. Still, it is more than likely that mammoth ivory has had a protective effect on elephants; although, I know of no studies examining the issue.

I wonder whether raising elephants for ivory (and meat?) could actually work?

I don't know about meat but the demand for ivory is entirely artificial driven by people who value it precisely for its scarcity rather than utility. Anything produced using ivory can also be produced much more cheaply using other (artificial) materials.

No, it wouldn't. Besides the ethical problems, it's not possible economically and zoologically. I'm kind of disturbed that this suggestion is so prevalent.

> I'm kind of disturbed that this suggestion is so prevalent.

I don't think you should be. I'm glad people are thinking up solutions, even if they turn out not to work.

It isn't an unreasonable naive idea. After all, domestication (turning them into symbiotes) has helped some species enormously. Others that could not be domesticated (e.g. whales) have survived only thanks to technological change. Even "wild" animals like deer and trout survive through a symbiotic relationship.

Yes, I understand it doesn't make sense for elephants in particular, and of course domesticating some animals usually spells doom for others. So I understand there's an argument to be made that domestication is inherently bad -- one I disagree with but there's a legit case to be made. But I'm glad people actually care.

> It isn't an unreasonable naive idea.

It's fundamentally misguided and it's not a solution. Between elephant extinction and elephant suffering, I will go with extinction every time.

Elephants are important for the ecosystem, IIRC something like 70% of all species in certain areas rely on them. If you remove them from the ecosystem by domesticating them, you are doing a damaging the ecosystem in multiple way.

No, elephants can't be contained on a farm. They are meant to roam whereby they disseminate seed of certain plants that rely on them to be disseminated.

Is that enough of a reason? Libertarianism is the answer only when you care about simple answers, not about working answers.

> Elephants are important for the ecosystem, IIRC something like 70% of all species in certain areas rely on them. If you remove them from the ecosystem by domesticating them, you are doing a damaging the ecosystem in multiple way.

I'm not sure why you think this is an either/or proposition. I mean, I accept that farming elephants isn't practical for a lot of reasons, but no one's talking about putting every living elephant on a farm.

Effectively that's what would happen under a legal ivory sales system. Poachers would effectively wipe them out in the wild.

Which they're doing anyway. It might not improve the situation, but it can hardly make it worse.

No universally no. Countries that have shoot in sight poaching policies have very low poaching rates.

How does due process work? Could anybody just murder anyone else and give a credible defense of "I thought that guy was a poacher?".

Why would that change if elephants were also farmed?

There are other ways of making the situation better?

The perfect is the enemy of the good?

Stop taking digs at libertarians--for the most part, market based systems succeed where every other plan conjured up by fallible man fails! Most of the other "working answers" involved force and in this case, eradicating the human scourge that have encroached on the elephants' habitat. I guess a secondary move would be to eradicate the human scourge who think they need ivory in their lives. So if mass murder is your thing, then by all means, find a non-market solution. But keep falling all over yourself thinking you care so much!

When the price per kilo/pound of ivory on the market is equivalent to that of gold, it's hard to believe that it would not be viable --the issue I can see is getting undercut by poachers. I believe there is a rancher in South Africa who is banking on the gov't allowing private production of rhino ivory[1]


[edit, it was rhino ivory and not elephant ivory the rancher is producing]

I mean what would be the point of this? Are we trying to prevent suffering of an intelligent species or what?

Also its not really viable. It takes forever to grow tusks (think decades).

And you are right, fundamentally this would just lead to extinction of elephants in the wild, because poachers would kill them.

But let's take a step back and realize that we really don't need to be enslaving another species.

The rancher apparently is growing his herd by 200 animals a year and is currently producing a tonne of ivory per year.

The point of producing them on a ranch is to make poaching uneconomical while at the same time producing enough for the market while remaining economically viable. Poachers, on the other hand, will hunt the species down to extinction, that's their incentive.

> The point of producing them on a ranch is to make poaching uneconomical

How does it achieve that goal tho? The price of raising an elephant on a farm is quite a bit and it takes forever. The price for a poacher is essentially zero.

The rancher believes economics are on his side (why else would he be raising a 1000+ heads of rhino cattle).

The price for a poacher is not zero. They risk life, limb and prison (not that I feel sorry for them) but it's not risk free.

> The rancher believes economics are on his side (why else would he be raising a 1000+ heads of rhino cattle).

Yeah, I remain unconvinced based on this.

> The price for a poacher is not zero.

The price of life in these areas is effectively zero. It's not the higher ups who do the killing, they get some locals to do it.

On a farm, you can also sell looking at the animals (tourist attraction) and meat and leather.

You can also try to breed faster growing critters. (That's a very long term project, though.)

These are terrible suggestions.


> I mean what would be the point of this?

Prevent wild elephants from going extinct.

> Are we trying to prevent suffering of an intelligent species or what?

No. If that were humanity's goal, we would have stopped eating pork.

> Prevent wild elephants from going extinct.

humans aren't raising pigs to prevent their extinction tho.

> No. If that were humanity's goal, we would have stopped eating pork.

The tides are slowly turning but we shouldn't be enslaving yet another species.

The situation with pork vs. wild boar is very different from the elephant, and more analogous to beef vs. the Cape Buffalo.

We don't need to hunt wild boar for meat thanks to factory farming of pork. Tracking a boar in the woods just for its meat makes no economic sense. We hunt the boar mainly for the experience of killing a dangerous and intelligent animal. But selling experience is hard to scale, esp. because only a very small subset of humanity has been allowed to engage in that sort of hunt (formerly by legally enforced social class distinctions and land ownership, more recently by cultural norms).

As a result, the hunting of boar is kept to a sustainable level.

As for the elephant, we don't need the meat either. And if hunting were only for the trophy hunter's experience, it would be sustainable. But the problem is the ivory: plastic is not a good enough substitute, so prices for the real thing are astronomical, and industrial-scale poaching of wild elephants makes economic sense for the unscrupulous.

If we farm-raise enough elephants to drop the price of ivory to the point that poachers could gain more from other illegal pursuits - illegal mining, stealing non-ferrous metals from construction sites, tapping into oil pipelines etc. - we would save the wild elephant.

These are all very theoretical claims.

Just like we domesticated cattle, we could do the same with practically all animals.

I mean, cows, pigs, chickens (dogs and cats) are the most docile creatures on earth. How would we enslave, rape, raise, slaughter them if they were angry and combatant and weren't submissive?

Breeding does wonders.

Check out any wild cattle and you'll see how easily, fearlessly they stomp their predators to death.

As for ethical problems, I see no difference between an elephant and a pig. Both are one of the smartest animals on earth. Yet, bacon! :D Given that first world countries enjoy their 99% factory farmed abominations of animal flesh, I'd say ethics was decided as a non-problem by look-the-other-way anthropocentric market agents.

edit: checkout Temple Grandin work with cattle. you can have a farm with hundreds of milk cows and have 2 people working on it (part time vet that's making all the cows pregnant and managing their calves, and one full time employee). her methods made industrial milk farms manage themselves. cows practically go to the milking robot alone, never stopping, never panicking. when I saw this being done with my own eyes, no wonder family farms can't compete without huge subsidies.


> It's not worth the effort.

That's for capitalism to decide (and those look-the-other-way market agents).

> It's also pink. Hit me up next time you get confused.

Difference being ethical one, not physical. Giving same moral consideration (no matter how great or small the consideration is) to elephants and pigs would be ethically consistent, yet it's quite clear that consideration isn't equal, due to some flawed/mutated value system of appeals to tradition, popularity and futility.

> Lol, I'm passingly familiar with her work. After the revolution, she's going to gulags. Idk why you bring her up tho.

A good example of how breeding docile, non-aggressive creatures can result in some seriously mind-blowing complacent, plant-like behavior (we see it in the human gulags too, though, and it's documented quite thoroughly in the history of USSR, docile humans at its finest form).

Capitalism can't dictate morals.

Killing pigs and killing elephants is in a similar category. But it's kind of about context. Kinda like when you get a little less sad when an ISIS fighter dies compared wiyou a kid who dies of cancer.

Idk what the temple Grandin thing is about.

> Capitalism can't dictate morals.

I do agree with that.

> Killing pigs and killing elephants is in a similar category. But it's kind of about context.

Yeah, the context being that elephants are glorified by the press, while reporting on mistreatment of pigs (or any farm practices) in the USA is considered a criminal act. [0]

That's the look-the-other-way market agent from up there. The context is also that mentioned mutated set of values.

I don't think the comparison is anywhere close to ISIS.

> Idk what the temple Grandin thing is about.

Well, no one knew you could manage a milk farm with two people, so saying that elephants can't be domesticated is a bit of a stretch.

[0]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ag-gag

I agree that they are similarly bad and aggag laws are retarded. It's just that one is already an industry while the other one isn't. I'm in favor of closing the current industry but fundamentally I realize that this will be to go to push through.

Why are you disturbed? It feels to me like a legitimate question.

Elephants are large herbivores, we are adept at raising large herbivores for meat and other products. Adding elephants to the list that contains cattle and horses is a logical step.

> Elephants are large herbivores,

An elephant can be like 8x bigger than either of those.

> we are adept at raising large herbivores for meat and other products.

You realize that cows contribute more to global warming than cars right? We should be scaling these productions down.

> Adding elephants to the list that contains cattle and horses is a logical step.

Do you know how the domestication process works?

If you own a car and commute to work, then your car will contribute more to global warming than your diet will. It just happen that more people eat cows than commute to work by a car.

Comparing cars with cow is unhelpful without the correct context. At minimum we should distinguish between meat cows raised on animal feed, milk cows, and grass cows (which in places are helping the environment to reduce overgrowth). Then we need to compare those to other diets.

Regardless, cars will always be worse per person compared to eating cows. I would stick with the domestication argument.

Dairy farming also trashes waterways with the nitrogen runoff having a terrible effect.

Why not just skip the elephants and make real good fakes? Tons of money to be made by the looks of it, and you can end this bullshit by dumping a whole lot of "ivory" on the market.

I think we should do the opposite: try to favor tusk-less elephants so they would be of no interest to poachers.

Isn't that what the poachers are already selecting for?

In theory it would, if you had a strict and uncircumventable certification process and if it was very difficult to corrupt the process --but given the strength of the source governments and the disinterest of the government where the demand exists, it's not likely to be viable.

Can't help but think that this is one of the utterly bizarre and wide ranging consequences of extreme income disparity.

The original article is at [1] (they link to it, but it's kinda easy to miss); the post on Bored Panda does contain additional photos.

[1] https://www.rferl.org/a/the-mammoth-pirates/27939865.html

Bored Panda appear to have ripped off the original source wholesale .. wonder what is up with that.

They did so without our permission, as you can see from the watermark on the photos.

Oh man, I suspected it but to have it confirmed really sucks.

I just noticed their post had 1.1M views and they still haven't updated the story or left a note.

If you're thinking about what to do next - try a DMCA to them and copied to abuse@ for their hosting provider. Ditto same report to their ad networks or exchanges (that can sometimes be really effective in changing behavior)

edit: btw brilliant work, I really enjoyed it.

I was suprised to see that none had commented on draining the possible genepool for Mammoth yet?

These "miners" are bound to reduce the available DNA for researchers that do work within this field, humans likely killed off the mammoth - if we brought it back it could serve to upkeep large quantities of open grounds (believe it or not but herds are important to grasslands and soilvalue).

Either there should be a larger rewards than the bones can offer and a get out of jail freecard for the offense if fresh DNA or what to is believed to be such is found (so that scientifical extraction is possible on site).

Or the regulation should be strengthened, both the governement and the criminal networks should realise what a potential goldmine living and breeding mammothherds could be for russia...


AFAIK the problems with creating a living mammoth are not in extracting DNA but in the other "implementation details", since we already know the complete genome.

Sequencing the genome of a species means you have a typical (or maybe modal) sequence of an individual. The GP is specifically talking about the gene pool, which is the set of variations with respect to the modal genome.

This is almost like improvised strip mining. The RFERL article states that one of these teams went through 5 tons of gasoline for the water pumps blasting that mud apart; it's obviously also a major investment that you may simply gamble away..

And usually do. The video I saw said that something like 30% of tuskers break even; the rest wind up penniless, and often with large loans.

Josh Gates and crew went and documented this for an episode of Expedition Unknown [0]. I don't envy those guys, but I found the process fascinating.

[0] http://www.travelchannel.com/shows/expedition-unknown/episod...

Those mosquito feet. That's like a photograph of pure misery.

As someone who is like a delicacy for mosquitos, that photo was seriously disturbing.

Fake ivory/lab grown, drop prices. Is that a viable solution?

There's still adventure out there.

Here's a link to the actual work - which is impressively presented - instead of this BoredPanda nonsense which is little more than bootleg theft.


Thanks! I produced the piece. Nice to see it here on HN.

Great article thanks. How did you get agreement from the tuskers to go with them, or even find out where to try meeting them?

I'm not the photographer, I put the site together. Our photo journalist, Amos, met one of the tuskers on another reporting trip (which I also produced), called On Siberia's Ice Highway.

I really enjoy reading these types of interactive stories. Good work!

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