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.

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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