A photographer spent 3 weeks among the mammoth pirates. This is what he saw.

In July 2016, photographer Amos Chapple went to see the mammoth pirates.‌

‌Photo by Amos Chapple/RFE/RL.‌‌

Chapple has worked extensively in northern Siberia, near the Arctic Circle. In the winter of 2015-16, he was there again on assignment. Then a local contact gave him a tip.


The contact said something new was happening in the region – a kind of illicit gold rush.

With elephant ivory banned, ivory dealers have been turning to mammoth remains instead — and paying people to go out and find them.

The work is dangerous, environmentally destructive, illegal, and, for some prospectors, wildly profitable. A single tusk can rake in more cash than five years' worth of wages.

The contact had already gone on one expedition and was preparing to go out again. Chapple managed to persuade the contact to take him along on the condition that he not reveal any names or locations. So in July 2016, Chapple found himself camped out in the Russian woods with a company of amateur tusk hunters.

For the first week, he wasn't allowed to take a single picture. It was only after days of ingratiating himself with the men by cooking or doing chores around the camp that they let him bring out his camera.

His pictures first appeared on RadioFreeEurope/Radio Liberty. This is what he saw.

Tusk hunting has become an almost industrial-scale endeavor.

‌‌Photo by Amos Chapple/RFE/RL.‌‌

Most areas don't have mammoth tusks, but the extreme cold of Russia's far north has preserved many remains. Everyday Russians would often spot tusks or other bones poking out of hillsides and riverbanks.

For a long time, this kind of visual prospecting was the usual way to hunt tusks. The yield was limited to what you could see. If you were very serious, you might have a metal probe to poke into the ground, but that was about it.

Today, heavy, noisy water pumps created from firefighting equipment replace shovels and probes.

‌‌Photo by Amos Chapple/RFE/RL.‌‌

The work is done in the summer, when it's not so cold. Most of the men have other seasonal jobs during the winter.

Instead of a single dig, entire hillsides now lie exposed.

‌‌Photo by Amos Chapple/RFE/RL.‌

The hoses blast away at the hard, frozen soil, slowly excavating entire hillsides.

If the spray doesn't reveal anything, the hunters carve out long, dark, claustrophobic tunnels and caverns.

‌‌Photo by Amos Chapple/RFE/RL.

"I was always trying to limit my time in there," said Chapple. The tunnels were haphazardly carved and incredibly dangerous. Every five or 10 minutes, there was a thud as part of the wall or ceiling thawed and gave way, falling into the gluck of soft, glue-like mud.

"There were some places I could have gone into where I was just too frightened," said Chapple. In one area, an entire section of the dig had fallen in overnight. In another place, a collapse broke a man's leg and sent him to the hospital. They could not save the limb.

Back in camp, it wasn't much easier for the men. Or for Chapple.

Photo by Amos Chapple/RFE/RL.‌

The men on these expeditions camp out in wild, hidden areas for weeks or months at a time. Some bring cards or smartphones, but drinking seemed to be one of the most popular activities. Chapple brought four liters of beer along to help celebrate if the men found something. The hunters stole it and drank it all on the first day.

‌If it's not mammoth tusk or rhino horn, it's not valuable to the hunters. This skull of an extinct rhinoceros was used to support a cooking pot. Photo by Amos Chapple/RFE/RL.‌

Sometimes the drinking made getting along easier, but the mood could also turn dark very quickly. The men were very clan-like and distrustful of outsiders, said Chapple. Fights and threats of violence were not uncommon. Even Chapple wasn't immune.

There was one guy, for instance, who was more or less the leader. "The first thing he did, he grabbed me by the hat and pulled me across the table," said Chapple. The man shouted in Chapple's ear that he was in charge. Got it?

Later, after some heavy drinking, the same man came into the camp and drunkenly swung a metal bar near Chapple's head. It missed, and Chapple made a hasty retreat as the man slumped down onto a bench, shouting for the dog.

But for the men, all the risk and hardship can be worth it. Because the payoff if they find a tusk is huge.

‌‌Photo by Amos Chapple/RFE/RL.‌

Each tusk is worth a small fortune.

‌‌Photo by Amos Chapple/RFE/RL.‌

A single 140-pound specimen was later sold for $34,000. That's more than five years of wages in a region where the average person only makes about $500 a month. And that was just one of several tusks the expedition found that month.

‌This hunter, flashing the "money" sign, apparently did well. Not everybody does. Photo by Amos Chapple/RFE/RL.‌

When Chapple asked the men what they planned to do with the money, some said they wanted to put their kids through school. Many of them talked about moving to the city. But Chapple noted that once they got a score, some of the hunters seemed more interested in drinking their paychecks than investing them.

But despite this huge potential, the vast majority of hunters end up losing money.

Only about 20-30% of the tuskers make a profit every season, according to Dr. Valery Platnikov (who commented in RadioFreeEurope's piece). Many people sink a significant amount of their savings into these expeditions, even taking out bank loans, but they may spend entire seasons for nothing. Even if tusks are found, that doesn't mean an equal share for all. A lot of the wealth stays with the leaders.

Zooming out, the toll of all this work can be severe for both the men and the land.

The Federal Security Service and local police patrol these areas in boats and on foot, hoping to catch the tusk hunters. There were two separate scares in Chapple's three weeks there. Though he was not digging himself, Chapple didn't want to try explaining that to the authorities.

The Federal Security Service doesn't care as much about the tusks themselves as what the hunters are doing to the environment. All the silt and mud from the tuskers' work washes down into the regions' rivers, choking the lift out of them. Many people in the region don't even bother trying to fish those rivers anymore.

“I know it’s bad, but what can I do?" one tusker told Chapple. "No work, lots of kids.”

Photo by Amos Chapple/RFE/RL.‌

Further afield, scientists like University of Michigan professor Dan Fisher worry about the loss of valuable specimens. Mammoths grew their tusks throughout their lifetime, which means scientists like Fisher can analyze them to learn more about their life, like rings on a tree.

For years, Fisher and other scientists came to Siberia to find and study these tusks. But more and more of their study sites have been washed away by tusk hunters.

What's more, Fisher said that because of their reluctance to reveal their dig sites to others, the hunters often hide or destroy non-tusk material. Mammoth molars, parts from other animals, even artifacts from ancient humans can end up at the bottom of these silt-ruined rivers.

"It won't see the light of day for many centuries," said Fisher. "It certainly won't be collected by us."

This bison skull won't end up in any museum or collection. Instead, it's likely to be pitched into the river to cover the tusk hunters' tracks. Photo by Amos Chapple/RFE/RL.‌

The tusks are bound for destinations further on, likely China.

90% of Russia's mammoth ivory ends up in China and Hong Kong, which are also the main end point for illegal elephant ivory. Some have hoped that the legal mammoth ivory would sate the demand for elephant products, but it's not clear whether it's just made it easier to mask illegal elephant ivory.

After three weeks, Chapple left the mammoth hunters.

The tuskers stayed behind. It's not clear what happened to them afterward, but they likely continued to work at the site, eventually finishing as the summer ended. Then they'd pack their generators, tents, and gear into motorboats and head back to their towns.

There, a lucky few would celebrate their newfound wealth — or, for most of them, make do with their losses and plan ahead for the next round of digs.

After all, there's always next summer.

Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
True

Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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2020 was difficult (to say the least). The year was full of life changes, losses, and lessons as we learned to navigate the "new normal." You may have questions about what the changes and challenges of 2020 mean for your taxes. That's where TurboTax Live comes in, making it easy to connect with real tax experts to help with your taxes – or even do them for you, start to finish.

Not only has TurboTax Live helped millions of people get their taxes done right, but this year they've also celebrated people who uplifted their communities during a difficult time by surprising them with "little lifts" to help out even more.

Here are a few of their stories:


Julz, hairdresser and salon owner

"As a hairdresser and salon owner, 2020 was extremely challenging," says Julz. "Being a hairdresser has historically been a recession-proof industry, but we've never faced global shut down due to health risk, or pandemic, not in my lifetime. And for the first time, hairdressers didn't have job security."

Julz had to shut down her salon and go on unemployment benefits for the first time. She also had to figure out how she was going to support herself, her staff and her business during this difficult time. But many other beauty industry professionals didn't have access to the resources they needed, so Julz decided to help.

"My business partner and I began teaching basic financial literacy to other beauty industry professionals," she says. "Transitioning our business from behind the chair to an online academy was a challenge we tackled head-on so that we could move hairdressers into this new space of education, and create a more accessible curriculum to better serve our industry.

Julz connected with a TurboTax Live expert who helped her understand how unemployment affected her taxes and gave her guidance on filing quarterly estimated taxes for her small business. "I was terrified to sit at a computer and tackle this mess of receipts," Julz says, so "it was great to have some virtual handholding to walk me through each question."

In addition to giving Julz the personalized tax advice she needed, TurboTax Live surprised her with a "little lift" that empowered her to help even more beauty professionals. "When my tax expert Diana surprised me with a little lift, I was moved to tears," says Julz. "With that little lift, I was able to establish a scholarship fund to help get other hairdressers the education they deserve."


Alana, new mom

Alana welcomed her first child in 2020. "I think my biggest challenge was figuring out how to be a mom, with no guidance," she says. "My original plan was to have my mom by my side, teaching me the ropes, but because of COVID, she wasn't able to come out here."

She was also without a job for most of 2020 and struggled to find something new.

So, Alana took it as a sign: she decided to launch her own business so she could support her new baby, and that's exactly what she did. She started a feel-good company that specializes in creating affirmation card decks — and she's currently in the process of starting a second, video-editing business.

TurboTax Live answered Alana's questions about her taxes and gave her some much-needed advice as she prepared to launch her businesses. Thanks to their "little lift," they provided her with a little emotional support too.

"I got my mom a plane ticket to finally [have her] meet [my daughter] for her first birthday," Alana says. "I was also able to get a new computer," which helped her invest in her new business and work on her video editing skills. "It's helped my family and me so much," she says.


Michael, science teacher

When schools shut down across the country last year, Michael had to learn how to adapt to a virtual classroom.

"As a teacher, I had to completely revamp everything," he says, so that he could keep his students engaged while teaching online. "At the beginning, it was a nightmare because I had no idea. I had to go from A-Z within a couple of weeks."

Michael's TurboTax Live expert answered his questions about how working from home affected his taxes and helped him uncover surprising tax deductions. To top it all off, his expert surprised him with brand new science equipment and supplies, which allowed him to create an entire line of classes on YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook. "Now I can truly potentially reach millions of children with my lessons," he says. "I would never have taken that leap if not for the little lift from TurboTax Live."



Ricky, motivational youth speaker

As a motivational speaker, Ricky was used to doing his job in person, but, he says, "when COVID-19 hit, it altered my ability to travel and visit schools in person [because] schools moved to fully virtual or hybrid models."

He knew he had to pivot — so he began offering small virtual group workshops for student leadership groups at middle and high schools.

"This allowed me to work with student leaders to plan how they would continue making a positive impact on their school community," he says. He wasn't sure how being remote would affect his taxes, but TurboTax Live Self-Employed gave him the advice and answers that he needed to keep more money in his pocket at tax time — and the little lift he received from them has helped him serve even more students.

"[It] has been a major blessing," he says "There will be multiple schools and student groups from across the country that I can hold leadership workshops with to empower them with the tools to be inspirational leaders in their school, community, and world."

Plus, he says, it was great knowing he had an expert to help him figure out how being remote affected his taxes. "I felt confident and assured in the process of filing my taxes knowing I had an expert working with me, says Ricky. "There were things my expert knew that I would not have considered when filing on my own."

Filing your taxes doesn't have to be intimidating, especially after a year like 2020. TurboTax Live experts can give you the "little lift" you need to get your taxes done. File with the help of an expert or let an expert file for you! Go to TurboTax Live to get started.

Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
True

Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

Keep Reading Show less