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Making a mint from Arctic mammoths

One day, climate change could cost the earth. For now, it is a nice little earner for Russian hunter Alexander Vatagin.

In Siberia's northernmost reaches, high up in the Arctic Circle, the changing temperature is thawing out the permafrost to reveal the bones of prehistoric animals such as mammoths, woolly rhinos and lions that have been buried for thousands of years.

Private collectors and scientific institutes will pay huge sums for the right specimen, and bone-prospectors such asVatagin have turned this region, eight time zones from Moscow, into a palaeontological goldmine.

"Last year someone was paid 800,000 roubles [$37,000] for a mammoth head with two tusks in great condition," Vatagin said.

A brawny 45-year-old, Vatagin has a network of helpers: the fishermen and reindeer-herders of the tiny Yukagir ethnic group, whose numbers have dwindled to about 800.

"I must have earned the respect of the Yukagir. Their shamans convened a council and decided to name me a Yukagir." He is now Yukagir No. 456.

These tribesmen are his "finders", fanning out across the vast emptiness of the tundra seeking valuable artefacts.

At regular intervals, Vatagin flies by helicopter to the main Yukagir settlement, Andryushkino, about 200 kilometres west of the local centre of Chersky, to view the merchandise.

Prehistoric bones are not very hard to find, he says. The permafrost is thawing and breaking up so rapidly that in certain places in the tundra bones poke out through the soil every few metres. Some just lie on the surface.

Vatagin pays between $10 and $190 for a kilogram of mammoth bones. But it takes a keen eye and local knowledge to find the really valuable stuff.

Tusks, sometimes curled almost into a circle and reaching up to five metres in length, are the most prized finds. A pair of good tusks is a rarity; two tusks and a well-preserved skull can be worth a fortune.

"If he is lucky, a local can earn 200,000 roubles in just one day," said Vatagin, who wears a massive silver ring with a mammoth's head engraved into it.

"To earn this money, he would otherwise have to toil for a year."

But for Vatagin it is not just about money. He himself dives into the ice-cold local rivers to look for relics. The cash he pays the Yukagir tribesmen gives them a living.

Many of the bones retrieved by Vatagin and his adopted tribe end up at the Ice Age Museum in Moscow. The museum makes no secret that scientific discovery goes hand-in-glove with business interests.



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