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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Thaw Lays Bare Prehistoric Bones

ReutersEcosystems specialist Sergei Davydov examining a prehistoric cave tiger skull from the rapidly thawing Arctic Circle.
CHERSKY, Sakha -- One day, climate change could cost the Earth. For now, it is a nice little moneymaker 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 like 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 like Vatagin have turned this region, eight time zones from Moscow, into a paleontological Klondike.

"Last year, someone was paid 800,000 rubles ($31,000) for a mammoth head with two tusks in great condition," Vatagin said.

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

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

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

At regular intervals, Vatagin flies by helicopter to the main Yukagir settlement, Andryushkino, some 200 kilometers west of the local center of Chersky, to view the merchandise.

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

Vatagin pays 200 to 4,000 rubles ($8 to $156) per kilogram of mammoth bones. But it takes a keen eye and local knowledge to find the really valuable stuff.

Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters
A young boy marveling at the view from below of a mammoth's skeletal remains at Moscow's Ice Age Museum.
Tusks, sometimes curled round almost into a circle and reaching up to 5 meters 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 rubles ($7,800) 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 hand with business interests.

Museum official Alexander Svalov has on one of his fingers a ring identical to the one worn by Vatagin in distant Chersky.

The ring is the symbol of the National Alliance, a close-knit business run by entrepreneur Fyodor Shidlovsky. The company runs the museum and holds government licenses, allowing it to excavate and export prehistoric relics.

Svalov, who is the chief executive of National Alliance, says a well-preserved tusk can sell to private collectors for up to $20,000, while a reconstructed mammoth skeleton can fetch $150,000 to $250,000.

The bones make their way into museums in places like the United States and South Korea.

Promising new markets are now opening up in emerging economies like China too.

"Developing nations are now displaying huge interest in mammoths," Svalov says. "Their economies are growing, they have cash and are starting to develop their museums."

Back in Chersky, Sergei Davydov, a 52-year-old scientist, does not sell the bones he collects. He keeps them to study the effects of climate change, but also because they fascinate him.

"This tooth has an unusual bump here. The mammoth suffered from a terrible toothache. We can only imagine how he must have roared," said Davydov, tenderly rubbing a black tooth the size of a large shoe.

He displays his other finds: a mammoth's giant thigh bones, the horns of a woolly rhino, the jaws of an ancient horse and a cave lion's skull. Bison skulls crowned with sharp horns decorate the interior of his cozy, wooden house.

Davydov acknowledges that rising temperatures in Siberia have been a boon for bone collectors. "As the permafrost thaws, we obtain yet more objects for study," he said.

But then he said, "From the point of view of humanity, it would have been better if this had never happened."