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.

Courtesy of Amita Swadhin
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In 2016, Amita Swadhin, a child of two immigrant parents from India, founded Mirror Memoirs to help combat rape culture. The national storytelling and organizing project is dedicated to sharing the stories of LGBTQIA+ Black, indigenous people, and people of color who survived child sexual abuse.

"Whether or not you are a survivor, 100% of us are raised in rape culture. It's the water that we're swimming in. But just as fish don't know they are in water, because it's just the world around them that they've always been in, people (and especially those who aren't survivors) may need some help actually seeing it," they add.

"Mirror Memoirs attempts to be the dye that helps everyone understand the reality of rape culture."

Amita built the idea for Mirror Memoirs from a theater project called "Undesirable Elements: Secret Survivors" that featured their story and those of four other survivors in New York City, as well as a documentary film and educational toolkit based on the project.

"Secret Survivors had a cast that was gender, race, and age-diverse in many ways, but we had neglected to include transgender women," Amita explains. "Our goal was to help all people who want to co-create a world without child sexual abuse understand that the systems historically meant to help survivors find 'healing' and 'justice' — namely the child welfare system, policing, and prisons — are actually systems that facilitate the rape of children in oppressed communities," Amita continues. "We all have to explore tools of healing and accountability outside of these systems if we truly want to end all forms of sexual violence and rape culture."

Amita also wants Mirror Memoirs to be a place of healing for survivors that have historically been ignored or underserved by anti-violence organizations due to transphobia, homophobia, racism, xenophobia, and white supremacy.

Amita Swadhin

"Hearing survivors' stories is absolutely healing for other survivors, since child sexual abuse is a global pandemic that few people know how to talk about, let alone treat and prevent."

"Since sexual violence is an isolating event, girded by shame and stigma, understanding that you're not alone and connecting with other survivors is alchemy, transmuting isolation into intimacy and connection."

This is something that Amita knows and understands well as a survivor herself.

"My childhood included a lot of violence from my father, including rape and other forms of domestic violence," says Amita. "Mandated reporting was imposed on me when I was 13 and it was largely unhelpful since the prosecutors threatened to incarcerate my mother for 'being complicit' in the violence I experienced, even though she was also abused by my father for years."

What helped them during this time was having the support of others.

"I'm grateful to have had a loving younger sister and a few really close friends, some of whom were also surviving child sexual abuse, though we didn't know how to talk about it at the time," Amita says.

"I'm also a queer, non-binary femme person living with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, and those identities have shaped a lot of my life experiences," they continue. "I'm really lucky to have an incredible partner and network of friends and family who love me."

"These realizations put me on the path of my life's work to end this violence quite early in life," they said.

Amita wants Mirror Memoirs to help build awareness of just how pervasive rape culture is. "One in four girls and one in six boys will be raped or sexually assaulted by the age of 18," Amita explains, "and the rates are even higher for vulnerable populations, such as gender non-conforming, disabled, deaf, unhoused, and institutionalized children." By sharing their stories, they're hoping to create change.

"Listening to stories is also a powerful way to build empathy, due to the mirror neurons in people's brains. This is, in part, why the project is called Mirror Memoirs."

So far, Mirror Memoirs has created an audio archive of BIPOC LGBTQI+ child sexual abuse survivors sharing their stories of survival and resilience that includes stories from 60 survivors across 50 states. This year, they plan to record another 15 stories, specifically of transgender and nonbinary people who survived child sexual abuse in a sport-related setting, with their partner organization, Athlete Ally.

"This endeavor is in response to the more than 100 bills that have been proposed across at least 36 states in 2021 seeking to limit the rights of transgender and non-binary children to play sports and to receive gender-affirming medical care with the support of their parents and doctors," Amita says.

In 2017, Mirror Memoirs held its first gathering, which was attended by 31 people. Today, the organization is a fiscally sponsored, national nonprofit with two staff members, a board of 10 people, a leadership council of seven people, and 500 members nationally.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, they created a mutual aid fund for the LGBTQIA+ community of color and were able to raise a quarter-million dollars. They received 2,509 applications for assistance, and in the end, they decided to split the money evenly between each applicant.

While they're still using storytelling as the building block of their work, they're also engaging in policy and advocacy work, leadership development, and hosting monthly member meetings online.

For their work, Amita is one of Tory's Burch's Empowered Women. Their donation will go to Mirror Memoirs to help fund production costs for their new theater project, "Transmutation: A Ceremony," featuring four Black transgender, intersex, and non-binary women and femmes who live in California.

"I'm grateful to every single child sexual survivor who has ever disclosed their truth to me," Amita says. "I know another world is possible, and I know survivors will build it, together with all the people who love us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

This article originally appeared on 11.21.16


Photographer Katie Joy Crawford had been battling anxiety for 10 years when she decided to face it straight on by turning the camera lens on herself.

In 2015, Upworthy shared Crawford's self-portraits and our readers responded with tons of empathy. One person said, "What a wonderful way to express what words cannot." Another reader added, "I think she hit the nail right on the head. It's like a constant battle with yourself. I often feel my emotions battling each other."

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When a pet is admitted to a shelter it can be a traumatizing experience. Many are afraid of their new surroundings and are far from comfortable showing off their unique personalities. The problem is that's when many of them have their photos taken to appear in online searches.

Chewy, the pet retailer who has dedicated themselves to supporting shelters and rescues throughout the country, recognized the important work of a couple in Tampa, FL who have been taking professional photos of shelter pets to help get them adopted.

"If it's a photo of a scared animal, most people, subconsciously or even consciously, are going to skip over it," pet photographer Adam Goldberg says. "They can't visualize that dog in their home."

Adam realized the importance of quality shelter photos while working as a social media specialist for the Humane Society of Broward County in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

"The photos were taken top-down so you couldn't see the size of the pet, and the flash would create these red eyes," he recalls. "Sometimes [volunteers] would shoot the photos through the chain-link fences."

That's why Adam and his wife, Mary, have spent much of their free time over the past five years photographing over 1,200 shelter animals to show off their unique personalities to potential adoptive families. The Goldbergs' wonderful work was recently profiled by Chewy in the video above entitled, "A Day in the Life of a Shelter Pet Photographer."