The tusks of woolly mammoths are being dug up by the thousands from Arctic permafrost in order to be sold on Chinese budding ivory-carving industry. However, some scientists argue whether this seemingly legal ivory trade should be outlawed much like the ban on the sale of African elephant tusks.

Despite ongoing efforts to prohibit the trade of ivory, thousands of African elephants continue to be slaughtered each year by poachers to obtain their prized tusks.

Earlier this month, customs officials in Switzerland seized more than 500 pounds of ivory at the Zurich airport. The animal tusks are believed to have originated from Tanzania and were worth around £260,000 ($408,535).

Experts believe that much of the elephant tusks taken from African countries are destined for the black market in China. The Asian country takes in around 60 tons of ivory each year, making it the largest importer of illegal elephant tusks in the world.

Efforts to stop the illegal ivory trade have been made over the years, with many high-profile celebrities, such as Prince William and former U.S. presidential daughter Chelsea Clinton, providing their support for its prohibition.

The growing demand for carved tusks in China brought on by the country's newly-minted rich middle class continue to drive the importation of elephant ivory.

Evidence has also been found that point to Chinese black market traders passing off ivory taken from unearthed mammoths as genuine elephant tusks to bypass export controls.

Adrian Lister, a paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London, raised the argument for the inclusion of mammoth tusks to the prohibition on the ivory trade. He said that for poachers to be discouraged in killing the elephants, it may be necessary to ban the trade of mammoth tusks as well to keep the demand for ivory low.

Lister's recommendation is met with criticism, namely from conservation professor Douglas MacMillan at the University of Kent. He argued that outlawing mammoth ivory would not be able to stop its trade but it would instead drive its sale underground and draw interest from organized crime groups.

He pointed to his own research in which he discovered that prices for illegally obtained whale meat rose considerably as soon as officials intensified their efforts in prohibiting its sale. He said that this boom in the trade led professional criminals to control the market for whale meat.

MacMillan added that placing a ban on the mammoth ivory trade would only end up driving prices and causing many dig sites for mammoth to be excavated covertly without regard for any scientific purpose.

In place of a prohibition, MacMillan suggests that bolder strategies should be undertaken that economic sense, such as policies that would serve to drive ivory prices down and lessen the pressure on animal populations in the wild.

He recommends establishing sustainable efforts including regulating the trade of ivory, ranching and even wildlife farming. Similar measures have been successful with other endangered animals. This is seen in species of crocodiles that are now being farmed to provide supplies of leather to the market.

MacMillan said that a new economic study in Canada has found that the introduction of mammoth ivory trade in Asia has resulted in the reduction of prices for elephant ivory, saving the lives of thousands of elephants.

Photo: Diana Robinson | Flickr 

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