National Geographic : 2013 Apr
62 national geographic • April 2013 New Siberian Islands off the Arctic coast. Just getting to the islands means traversing a 35-mile ice bridge across the sea in spring, then staying on the island until the ocean freezes over again six months later—or riding home earlier on small boats that can get engulfed by 15-foot waves. If the mainland is perilous—Gorokhov says he once spent eight months lost on the tundra— the islands are far worse. Beyond the hunger and exhaustion, the polar bear attacks, and the deaths of four colleagues last summer, Gorokhov faced the hazard of Russian border guards. Swooping in on helicopter patrols, they kicked dozens of tusk hunters off the islands for lacking the proper permits, often destroying their equip- ment and confiscating their tusks. “You get very skilled at hiding your tusks and lying very still in the tundra,” Gorokhov says. The tusks make it worth the risk. After a couple of expeditions to Bolshoy Lyakhovskiy Island, where Gorokhov found spectacular specimens in the seaside bluffs, he has moved on to the more distant Kotelnyy Island. Even now, as hundreds of others have rushed to join him, Gorokhov keeps a step ahead. “I’ve been doing this so long I almost think like a paleon- tologist,” he says. On Kotelnyy he’s noticed that as the permafrost thaws and settles each sum- mer, mammoth tusks resting on a layer of ice below begin to peek out of the tundra. “Every year there’s another crop,” he says. It is almost midnight at Gorokhov’s home along the Yana River, some 50 miles south of where it flows into the Laptev Sea. The embers of a September sunset streak the horizon orange— they will linger all night at this latitude—and the ghostly green lights of the aurora borealis are starting to dance across the sky. Gorokhov, just back to Ust-Yansk after his five-month island The journey from permafrost to market begins by small boat (above). Some 90 percent of tusks go to China, whose ivory-carving tradition dates back thousands of years. Carvers in this shop in Guangdong Province can spend five years on one piece, which might sell for a million dollars. Dashing hopes, availability of legal mammoth ivory has not reduced demand for illegal elephant ivory.