The last wooly mammoth roamed the Earth some 4,000 years ago, but even now, they are hunted. Men roam the arctic, boring through the permafrost and excavating the remains of these mighty creatures in search of their ivory tusks. It’s risky, but lucrative, work. Amos Chapple, photographer with Radio Free Europe, loves documenting extreme environments. He met a tusk hunter in March while photographing ice roads in Arctic villages. Three months later, he flew to a small village in Yakutia where he took a Soviet-era speedboat down the Lena River to a Siberian camp 300 miles south of the Arctic Circle. He found tusk hunters hoping to strike it rich blasting into a hillside and pulling out ancient tusks. “It was a like a gold rush, completely lawless,” he says. While Chapple was there, hunters uncovered four tusks within a week; the ivory later sold for about $100,000. Most aren’t so lucky, and can go a whole summer without finding anything. Others, if caught, can get fined. “You stand to either lose money or get rich,” says Chapple. Just like any gold rush. The 60 men, many of them truck drivers or factory workers, spent the summer tunneling 200 feet underground with gas-fueled water pumps adapted from firefighting gear or snowmobile engines. The noisy process removes layers of frozen soil to expose animals preserved for thousands of years. Near-constant daylight allows the men to toil late into the night. Every two weeks, someone would venture back to civilization for supplies—gasoline, macaroni with canned beef, reindeer meat, and lots of vodka. “Half the men would get plastered drunk for two days and spend a day recovering,” Chapple says.
Photography: Amos Chapplewww.wired.com
A tusker explores a cavern exposed while tunneling.
Tuskers pump water from the Lena River to uncover woolly mammoth remains.
This 140-pound tusk sold for $34,000.
Runoff from the hoses runs into the river, raising silt levels.
A woolly rhinoceros skull props up a kettle.
A man blasts water at the ground, hoping to uncover tusks.
This tusker converted a snowmobile engine into a water pump.
Tuskers crashed their boat, waterlogging the equipment.
Tuskers use pressurized water to bore 200-foot-long tunnels.
A tusker spends some down time in a tent.