Claims about Woolly Mammoths

In a working paper released in December 2015, the economists Naima Farah and John R. Boyce find that the discovery and exchange of mammoth tusks is having a serious effect on the market for living elephant tusks. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, they write, tusks from dead mammoths, found in the frozen Siberian tundra, have risen to account for as much as 20 percent of all ivory production. Crunching the numbers, they conclude, “Mammoth ivory trade may be saving elephants from extinction.” In the long run, however, it may be too optimistic to believe that such a laissez faire solution can forestall wild elephant extinction.

Most of the article, by Greg Rosalsky, deals with how researchers are using data (!) to determine whether woolly mammoths did indeed fall prey to the tragedy of the commons.


I thought wooly mammoths became extinct because they were all worked to death building pyramids?

(I kid, I kid)

I would like to make a joke about them becoming extinct because of a ban on the ivory trade. Elephants and people do not get along. Elephants eat crops, trample fields, kill people. People near them need a high degree of tolerance or a strong financial incentive. I don't think denying them a strong financial incentive is a good idea. Not that it relates to the mammoths much. Humans almost certainly hunted everything that moved and didn't have enough off spring fast enough into extinction.

Still I find it hard to believe that mammoth ivory doesn't sell at a sufficient premium to constitute an almost distinct market. I wouldn't mind something made of ethically sources elephant ivory. But a mammoth would be so much better.

Just so. Elephants, like tigers and lions and rhinoceroses, are becoming extinct due to lack of habitat. Total potential area is finite and in demand by other species. It's really just that simple.

All the wilderness areas of the Southern Hemisphere are doomed. And probably the Northern ones as well.

Humans are not preprogrammed for such expansion. We are able to cooperate to establish mechanisms to prevent such undesirable outcomes.

"Humans are not preprogrammed for such expansion."

This comment seems like it ignores historical precedents. For the last 60,000 years or so.

Of course you are right.

I was more thinking to say that the fact that we have tended to do so before does not imply that we must do so now. Recognizing scarcity, we are able to cooperate to prevent loss of things that have social value.

Nathan W February 11, 2016 at 3:53 pm

Recognizing scarcity, we are able to cooperate to prevent loss of things that have social value.

Sure. If we are a King and like hunting. Other attempts to preserve things invariably fail. Admittedly the only other serious effort I can think of offhand is religious - preserving sacred locations. And I suppose Mount Athos is not doing too badly. Otherwise, no we cannot cooperate to prevent the loss of things that have a social value, especially if they are large, have tusks and trample crops.

"I thought wooly mammoths became extinct because they were all worked to death building pyramids? (I kid, I kid)"

Oddly enough, it wouldn't have been impossible -- chronologically anyway. There were still mammoths living on Wrangel Island, off the Siberian coast, at that time.

Really, the problem could be solved if more great game hunters were allowed to kill more elephants, as hunters are the most dedicated conservationists, according to themselves. Let the market in killing elephants work its magic.

The historical record is that hunters are the most dedicated conservationists. The closest thing Europe has to megafauna like the mammoth is the European bison. Preserved for centuries in one forest in Poland:

The first recorded piece of legislation on the protection of the forest dates to 1538, when a document issued by King Sigismund I instituted the death penalty for poaching a bison.[16] The King also built a new wooden hunting manor in a village of Białowieża, which became the namesake for the whole complex. .... Tsar Alexander II visited the forest in 1860 and decided to re-establish the protection of bison. Following his orders, locals killed all predators: wolves, bears and lynx. Between 1888 and 1917, the Russian tsars owned all of primaeval forest, which became the royal hunting reserve. The tsars sent bison as gifts to various European capitals, while at the same time populating the forest with deer, moose and other animals imported from around the empire. The last major tsarist hunt took place in 1912.

So the Kings of Poland and the Tsars of Russia preserved the forest, and after the Revolution that killed the Tsar, what happened?

European bison were hunted to extinction in the wild in the early 20th century, with the last wild animals of the B. b. bonasus species being shot in the Białowieża Forest (on the Poland-Belarus border) in 1921, and the B. b. caucasus in the northwestern Caucasus in 1927.

Yep, the peasants hunted them all to extinction. More or less immediately.

Britain's forests only survived because the Kings hunted in them. That is the origin of places like the New Forest. As objectionable as it might be for you to accept, the only successful long-term conservationists have been aristocratic hunters.

"Kings" are essentially government.

This historical record is that hunters have preserved all game animals that are not extinct.

Some hunters are conservationist, others are not. In this industrialized countries, hunters are more likely to be conservationists because they value the sport rather than the economic gain.

"Britain’s forests only survived because the Kings hunted in them": no. "Forest" meant land on which the King (or Earl, or Abbot, ...) had monopoly hunting rights, usually for deer. It didn't mean woodland. Some Forests had no woodland at all, being entirely moorland; many were a mixture of woodland, heath, and pasture - e.g the New Forest - and some had ploughland too. Woodland survived because it was a valuable use of land that wasn't fit for the plough, and because it would have required an enormous effort to clear anyway.

I think there is some selection problem in the portrayal.

Among protectionists, a large number of them are hunters. But hunters are also over-represented on basically anything relating to hunting.

On average, I doubt that the average hunter is MORE conservationist than the average non hunter. But that's debatable statement.

Jon February 11, 2016 at 6:12 am

Kings are a special type of government. One that intends their grandchildren to be hunting the same animals in the same forests.

It may be true that some hunters are not conservationists. But the most effective, and perhaps all, conservationists have been hunters. The keenest hunter to sit in the White House was probably Teddy Roosevelt:

Of all Roosevelt's achievements, he was proudest of his work in conservation of natural resources, and extending Federal protection to land and wildlife. Roosevelt established the United States Forest Service, signed into law the creation of five National Parks, and signed the 1906 Antiquities Act, under which he proclaimed 18 new U.S. National Monuments. He also established the first 51 Bird Reserves, four Game Preserves, and 150 National Forests, including Shoshone National Forest, the nation's first. The area of the United States that he placed under public protection totals approximately 230,000,000 acres (930,000 km2).

dearieme February 11, 2016 at 6:21 am

Yes dearieme, I have read Oliver Rackham too. It is odd that forests that are close enough to London to be commuter belts, and look well suited to farming to most observers, did not get logged. While parts of the Scottish Highlands, which are useless for any other purpose apart from grouse, did. Epping Forest has survived. It is in London.

The only logical explanation is hunting.

Nathan W February 11, 2016 at 12:34 pm

But hunters are also over-represented on basically anything relating to hunting.

Sure. City dwellers don't care if peasants lay traps for elephants. They don't live with them. Hunters do.

On average, I doubt that the average hunter is MORE conservationist than the average non hunter. But that’s debatable statement.

It is not that debatable but to debate it you would need some evidence or a reason. Apart from your mood affiliation. You know, hunters bad, urban educated people like me good, conservation good, therefore people like me support it and hunters don't.

This is akin to proposals to legalize and regulate the rhino horn market.

link via google

I'd prefer a mass advertising campaign which educates Chinese on the fact that fingernails and toenails are a perfect substitute for rhino horn.

I predict that will be just as successful as attempts to convince hippies that GMO's are safe to eat.

Me too.

Only the Chinese government could effectively pull it off, since otherwise signals get mixed as part of a cultural critique which the Chinese easily write off as ignorance. But how can you get the Chinese government to want to do something which involves some critique of traditional Chinese medicine?

Has anyone tried to make a synthetic product or substitute from domesticated animals that is cheap and customers would not be able to distinguish from rhino horn? Then one could flood the market and remove the economic incentive for poaching.

Governments could still catch poachers to keep the illegal trade risks high as more they would sophisticated analysis .

Fingernail and toenail clippings.

Also, barber shop sweepings.

The solution to poaching has been proposed by me before.

Reassign to something appropriate existing Reaper and Predator drones. Rent them out to the highest bidder. Establish a point system for any poachers they eliminate. There will be a certain equilibrium, as in the absence of poaching, there is less incentive to rent the drones.

Until someone rents them out and guns down all the rhinos for the lulz.

Seriously, that would happen within about 5 minutes.

It seems sort of profane to use the finite number of tusks of an extinct species to make ivory trinkets.
I mean, on one level I understand there must be lots of these things around, but I dcan't quite shake the feeling that this is akin to destroying archeological sites.

On one hand I agree with your statement about it seeming profane, on the other hand, the entire Earth is an archeological site.

It's a shame National Geographic didn't continue to update

"Ivory? I should think so. Heaps of it, stacks of it. The old mud shanty was bursting with it. You would think there was not a single tusk left either above the ground or below the ground in the whole country. 'Mostly fossil,' the manager had remarked, disparagingly."

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