The woolly mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius) may have been extinct for 4,000 years but the ancient animal that scientists believed is closely related to the modern day elephant could get legal protection under wildlife and conservation trade rules.

The move, which would be made under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), could make the woolly mammoth the first long-extinct animal to be given legal protection under conservation trade rules.

Giving legal protection may not bring back the lost species which lived during the ice age and may have gone extinct when the weather became warmer. The legal protection is an attempt to put an end to the laundering of elephant tusks amid concerns that the massive ivory trade has severely impacted the population of modern-day elephants particularly in Africa and Asia.

Mammoth ivory has become a lucrative export in Russia because of climate change. Large amounts of ivory mammoth tusks have been unearthed in the Siberian tundra because the warming weather has melted the permafrost, where the ancient tusks can be found.

As many as 150 million dead mammoths are estimated to be lying underneath the tundra. With rich harvest, Russia exports up to 100 tons of these ivories per year to Vietnam and China.

While the trade of mammoth ivory is legal and considered an ethical alternative to trading of elephant ivory, there are concerns that the growing trade in mammoth tusks could give way for smugglers to launder illegal ivory from African elephants.

Smugglers can pass the ivories off as coming from the extinct animals. Poachers have been passing off elephant tusk ivory as derived from mammoths so they can get around restrictions currently imposed on elephant tusks.

Although the proposal involves limiting the trade of mammoth ivory, the primary aim is to protect the elephants with their dwindling numbers already impacted by conflict and habitat destruction.

The proposal aiming to limit mammoth ivory trade is on the agenda of the Cites conference set next month in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Cites secretary-general John Scanlon said that the problem is that the mammoth ivory can be confused with ivories that were taken from endangered elephants.

"This is the first long-extinct animal considered for a restriction in trade. We have to work out how we might legally do this."

Mammoth ivory is used as a fashion item. U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama even wore it in a necklace, a fashion choice that subjected her to criticisms from conservationists.

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