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Ancient beasts unearthed in Siberia’s rush for mammoth ‘ice ivory’

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Blasted from their permafrost graves by men hunting mammoth tusks, Sparta and Boris, two cave lion cubs who lived tens of thousands of years ago, are now cared for by scientists in the city of Yakutsk in eastern Siberia.

They reside in the cold-storage room of a small building on a potholed backstreet of this hardscrabble city, as part of a unique menagerie of extraordinary Ice Age relics: a baby mammoth, a woolly rhino, the skulls of ancient bison and the still furry, still snarling head of a 32,000-year-old wolf.

Animals whose remains long since rotted away in milder climes have been preserved in the permafrost of Russia’s north, but while the discoveries of recent years are a boon for scientists, they also highlight this remote region’s vulnerability to global warming and to man’s search here for many kinds of buried treasure.

Boris and Sparta were unearthed deep in the interior of the Yakutia region, also called the Republic of Sakha, which is the biggest province on the planet. They were found in 2017 and 2018, just 15m apart, but scientists believe the male lived about 43,000 years ago and the female some 15,000 years later.

Boris, a lion cub found by people hunting for mammoth tusks in the Yakutia region of north-eastern Russia. He lived 43,000 years ago. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin
Boris, a lion cub found by people hunting for mammoth tusks in the Yakutia region of north-eastern Russia. He lived 43,000 years ago. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin

Both cubs are thought to have been less than two months old when they died, probably in rock falls or cave collapses, which entombed them in permafrost that preserved them so well that experts managed to determine their sex, and expressed hopes that Sparta’s body may even still contain traces of her mother’s milk.

They were discovered hundreds of kilometres northeast of Yakutsk beside a tributary of the remote Indigirka river, which flows north to the Arctic Ocean, at a place where the bones of ancient bears, wolves, horses, reindeer – and even an almost entirely intact, 46,000-year-old lark – have also been found.

Boris takes his name from a local man who spotted him while hunting for mammoth tusks – known as “ice ivory”– which feed a Chinese market starved of banned elephant ivory and fuel dreams of sudden, life-changing wealth among people eking out an existence in Russia’s far north.

“These things are always found by locals, not scientists – what can a dozen scientists do in a territory the size of India, that is inhabited by fewer than a million people?” says Albert Protopopov, head of the Ice Age fauna department at Yakutia’s Academy of Sciences.

Albert Protopopov, head of the Ice Age fauna department at Yakutia’s Academy of Sciences in Siberia. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin
Albert Protopopov, head of the Ice Age fauna department at Yakutia’s Academy of Sciences in Siberia. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin

“I have good relations with lots of tusk hunters, and when they find something they call me and send photos. Just the other day I was told about a mammoth found near Tiksi on the Arctic coast. They say there is fur and flesh and fat on it, but I don’t know how much of the carcass remains,” he adds.

“There is no other place like this in the world, where so many animals are found in such good condition. In some places, perhaps they make a big find once every 10 or 20 years – but here we find something really interesting every year.”

Extraordinary condition

The cave lion cubs – two of at least four that have been discovered in Yakutia – are among the best-preserved Ice Age creatures ever found. Their soft, sandy fur is still marked with darker patches, their ears are brown and the pads of their paws and their claws are intact.

Sparta, a lion cub found by people hunting for mammoth tusks in the Yakutia region of north-eastern Russia, with claws still visible 28,000 years after he lived. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin
Sparta, a lion cub found by people hunting for mammoth tusks in the Yakutia region of north-eastern Russia, with claws still visible 28,000 years after he lived. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin

The wolf’s head still has reddish fur and formidable fangs, and a five-tonne, 39,000-year-old baby mammoth – nicknamed Yuka after members of the far-northern Yukagir community that unearthed her in 2010 – is the most complete member of her species yet discovered.

Both Yuka and the wolf’s head contained remnants of their brains, and the extraordinary condition of finds made in Yakutia has allowed scientists to extract the world’s oldest DNA from a 1.2 million-year-old mammoth tooth, and for a state-run Siberian lab to start researching ancient viruses and virus evolution this year.

Yet these long-extinct beasts, which grab world headlines when they re-emerge into the light, are of only passing interest to most of their discoverers.

The head of a 32,000-year-old wolf found by people hunting for mammoth tusks in the permafrost of Yakutia in north-eastern Russia. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin
The head of a 32,000-year-old wolf found by people hunting for mammoth tusks in the permafrost of Yakutia in north-eastern Russia. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin

They want mammoth tusks, and go to considerable risk and expense to find them, hooking up engines to high-powered hoses to gouge deep holes in the permafrost, then venturing into these unstable tunnels in the hope of hauling out a bone weighing dozens of kilos, which could fetch tens of thousands of euro.

Several people with knowledge of the trade said most “ice ivory” is sold by local tusk hunters to “agents” representing buyers from China, where mammoth bone meets huge demand created by a 2018 ban on the sale of elephant ivory.

Experts believe more than 80 per cent of all the mammoth tusks in Russia lie buried in Yakutia, and estimate that more than 100 tonnes are unearthed legally each year by people holding licenses – but that the illegal trade may be twice as large, running to tens of millions of euro.

As well as doing severe damage to permafrost – which is already melting due to global warming and emitting greenhouse gases as it thaws – the trade brings relatively small profits to most tusk hunters in Russia’s far north, while delivering much bigger sums to the agents and jewellery firms that sell finished carvings.

In what officials call a bid to bring control and transparency to the trade, and to reduce permafrost damage, Yakutia this year banned the export of all mammoth tusks longer than three metres.

Critics say the move will only fuel more smuggling, however, driving up criminality in the far north and making it even harder for many members of the region’s indigenous communities to make a living.

Environmental damage

Russia officially recognises the presence of about 40 indigenous peoples in Siberia and the country’s far north and the far east, who for centuries lived mostly from reindeer herding, fishing, hunting and other traditional practices.

Soviet development of remote areas began to put pressure on these peoples and their way of life, but community leaders say the current push of Russia’s military and energy firms into the Arctic poses a bigger threat – especially at a time when climate change is also affecting pastures and animal migration routes.

Mammoth tusks found in the permafrost of northern Russia, now stored at the Academy of Sciences in Yakutia, also known as the Republic of Sakha. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin
Mammoth tusks found in the permafrost of northern Russia, now stored at the Academy of Sciences in Yakutia, also known as the Republic of Sakha. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin

Boris Nikolayev, deputy president of the Evenk people of Yakutia, said the peoples of Arctic Russia “await with great interest and some concern” the new wave of development in the region, having witnessed the environmental damage caused by previous generations of incomers who lived far better than local people.

In earlier decades, he said “residents of the Arctic understood that [industrial development] was necessary for the Soviet motherland, so they didn’t pay much attention to differences in wages, social and living conditions and benefits”.

“But after fulfilling their tasks and exhausting the natural resources … these ‘neighbours’ abandoned everything they had built and moved elsewhere,” he told the Northern Forum on Sustainable Development in Yakutsk last week.

“These so-called industrially developed places were almost completely lost to the traditional ways of life of the north, for centuries and perhaps forever. The bitter truth of history leads to fears … of another round of this so-called development of Russia’s Arctic zone.”

Avgusta Marfusalova, a long-time politician in Yakutia and advocate for the rights of its indigenous peoples, said herding, hunting and fishing were the “material basis on which the spiritual culture of the indigenous people of the north, Siberia and the far east developed”.

“And so, if [they] disappear, you can be sure the unique cultures of circumpolar civilisation will go too, as will those languages and those peoples.”

Transparency

Experts warn that temperatures in the far north are rising twice as quickly as the global average, and Protopopov says plants are now flowering for considerably longer in the Russian Arctic, and mosquitoes have appeared for the first time in living memory on some of its islands.

He explains that searching for mammoth tusks is now one of the main sources of income in remote parts of northern Russia, and should be regulated to help protect the environment, bring transparency to the industry and raise both the income of the tusk hunters and Yakutia’s tax take from the trade.

Souvenirs with elements of ancient mammoth tusk on sale in Yakutsk, north-eastern Siberia. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin
Souvenirs with elements of ancient mammoth tusk on sale in Yakutsk, north-eastern Siberia. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin

Yet he opposes the ban on export of tusks longer than three metres, arguing that such finds are common, and that the move will drive the trade into the shadows.

Protopopov and his colleagues fear hunters will cut up and smuggle tusks, depriving scientists of a chance to examine them before export and breaking the link between specialists and the local people who now alert them to less profitable finds – like the cave lion cubs – which amaze the scientific world and general public.

“It’s a huge plus for us that they’re searching for mammoth tusks,” says Stanislav Kolesov, a researcher at Yakutia’s Academy of Sciences, which hopes to move its Ice Age animals to a planned World Centre of Mammoths in Yakutsk in about five years.

Stanislav Kolesov, a researcher at Yakutia’s Academy of Sciences in Siberia, at its storage building for Ice Age animals. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin
Stanislav Kolesov, a researcher at Yakutia’s Academy of Sciences in Siberia, at its storage building for Ice Age animals. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin

“It is precisely as result of them them looking for tusks that we have these discoveries. We have a big collection because of their work, because of things they gave us.”

“Let’s open up this market,” says Protopopov, “let’s have European and US auctions of mammoth tusks, so there’s no contraband, no danger of elephant ivory being traded as mammoth tusks, so the price goes up and everyone benefits.

“I think people here should be allowed to gather tusks. It will be good for them, for the Republic of Sakha and for elephants,” he adds.

“After all, it makes no difference to the mammoths – they died a long time ago. Now let them do some good by helping to save the elephants.”


Inside Russia

A series of in-depth reports from this vast and poorly understood country READ MORE

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Census 2022 – what difference does it make?

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Next Sunday, April 3rd, is Census night. Millions of people in homes countrywide will fill in page after page of questions, some of which are deeply personal and many of which might be unfamiliar.

But what it is it all about?

At a basic level, Census 2022 will be used to inform planning of public policy and services in the years ahead, according to the Central Statistics Office.

The questions will cover a range of environmental, employment and lifestyle issues, including the use of renewable energy sources in homes.

The questions will help inform policy development in the areas of energy and climate action, and the prevalence of internet access, to understand the availability of and need for internet connections and range of devices used to access the internet.

Questions also focus on changes in work patterns and will include the trend of working from home and childcare issues, while questions are also asked about the times individuals usually leave work, education or childcare, to help identify and plan for transport pattern needs locally and nationally.

Other topics covered include volunteering and the type of organisations volunteers choose to support, tobacco usage and the prevalence of smoke alarms in the home.

And of course there is a time capsule – the chance to write something which will be sealed for the next 100 years.

In this episode of In The News, the head of census administration Eileen Murphy and statistician Kevin Cunningham about what it all means for us.

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Oscars 2022: Will Smith makes Oscar history after slapping Chris Rock over joke about wife Jada Pinkett Smith | Culture

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Will Smith took the Oscar for Best Actor at last night’s 94th Academy Awards, but he also became the protagonist of the ceremony for other reasons. The night was following the script, until Smith slapped comedian Chris Rock on the stage after the latter made a joke about the shaved head of the former’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. Rock had quipped that he was “looking forward to GI Jane 2,” in reference to her look. Pinkett Smith has revealed publicly that she has alopecia. It looked as if the moment had been planned, until Smith went back to his seat and shouted: “Get my wife’s name out of your fucking mouth.”

The moment, which immediately became Oscar history but for all the wrong reasons, left the attendees with frozen smiles, and asking themselves whether it was possible that a veteran such as Smith could have lost his cool in front of tens of millions of people. After taking the prize for Best Actor, the superstar actor made a tearful apology, saying that he hoped the Academy “will invite me back.” Later on, actor Anthony Hopkins called for “peace and love,” but it was already too late. The incident overshadowed the success of CODA, which took the Oscar for Best Picture. Just like the time when Warren Beatty mistakenly named La La Land as the big winner of the night, no one will speak about anything else from last night’s awards.

At first sight, Smith’s actions looked as if they were scripted. When he first heard Rock’s joke, he laughed. But his wife was seen on camera rolling her eyes, and it was then that the actor got up onto the stage and hit Rock. When he returned to his seat he raised his voice twice to shout “Get my wife’s name out of your fucking mouth,” sending a wave of unease and shock through the attending audience. The fact that he used the f-word, which is prohibited on US television, set alarm bells ringing that this was real and not a planned moment. In fact, the curse word was censored by the broadcaster, ABC, in the United States.

During a break, Smith’s PR manager approached him to speak. In the press room, which the actor skipped after collecting his prize, instructions were given to the journalists not to ask questions about the incident, Luis Pablo Beauregard reports. The next presenter, Sean “Diddy” Combs, tried to calm the situation. “Will and Chris, we’re going to solve this – but right now we’re moving on with love,” the rapper said.

When Smith took to the stage to collect his Best Actor award for his role as Richard Williams – the father of tennis stars Venus and Serena – in King Richard, he referred to the character as “a fierce defender of his family.” He continued: “I’m being called on in my life to love people and to protect people and to be a river to my people. I know to do what we do you’ve got to be able to take abuse, and have people talk crazy about you and have people disrespecting you and you’ve got to smile and pretend it’s OK.”

He explained that fellow actor Denzel Washington, who also spoke to Smith during a break, had told him: “At your highest moment, be careful, that’s when the devil comes for you.”

“I want to be a vessel for love,” Smith continued. “I want to be an ambassador of that kind of love and care and concern. I want to apologize to the Academy and all my fellow nominees. […] I look like the crazy father just like they said about Richard Williams, but love will make you do crazy things,” he said. He then joked about his mother, who had not wanted to come to the ceremony because she had a date with her crochet group.

The Los Angeles Police Department released a statement last night saying that Chris Rock would not be filing any charges for assault against Smith. “LAPD investigative entities are aware of an incident between two individuals during the Academy Awards program,” the statement read. “The incident involved one individual slapping another. The individual involved has declined to file a police report. If the involved party desires a police report at a later date, LAPD will be available to complete an investigative report.”

On December 28, Pinkett Smith spoke on social media about her problems with alopecia. She stated that she would be keeping her head shaved and would be dealing with the condition with humor. “Me and this alopecia are going to be friends… Period!” she wrote on Instagram.



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House-price inflation set to stay double digit for much of 2022

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House-price inflation is expected to remain at double-digit levels for much of 2022 as the mismatch between what is for sale and what buyers want continues.

Two new reports on the housing market paint a picture of a sector under strain due to a lack of supply and increased demand driven by Covid-related factors such as remote working.

The two quarterly reports, one each from rival property websites myhome.ie and daft.ie, suggest asking prices accelerated again in the first quarter of 2022 as the stock of homes available for sale slumped to a new record low.

Myhome, which is owned by The Irish Times, said annual asking-price inflation was now running at 12.3 per cent.

Price

This put the median or typical asking price for a home nationally at €295,000, and at €385,000 in Dublin.

MyHome said the number of available properties for sale on its website fell to a record low of 11,200 in March, down from a pre-pandemic level of 19,000. The squeeze on supply, it said, was most acute outside Dublin, with the number of properties listed for sale down almost 50 per cent compared with pre-pandemic levels.

It said impaired supply and robust demand meant double-digit inflation is likely until at least mid-2022.

“Housing market conditions have continued to tighten,” said author of the myhome report, Davy chief economist Conall Mac Coille.

“The broad picture of the market in early 2022 remains similar to last year: impaired supply coupled with robust demand due to Ireland’s strong labour market,” he said.

Soure: MyHome.ie

“One chink of light is that new instructions to sell of 7,500 in the first 11 weeks of 2022 are well up from 4,800 in 2021, albeit still below the 9,250 in 2019. The flow of new properties therefore remains impaired,” said Mr Mac Coille.

“Whatever new supply is emerging is being met by more than ample demand. Hence, transaction volumes in January and February were up 13 per cent on the year but pushed the market into ever tighter territory,” he said.

He said Davy was now predicting property-price inflation to average 7 per cent this year, up from a previous forecast of 4.5 per cent, buoyed strong employment growth.

Homes

Daft, meanwhile, said house asking prices indicated the average listed price nationwide in the first quarter of 2022 was €299,093, up 8.4 per cent on the same period in 2021 and and just 19 per cent below the Celtic Tiger peak, while noting increases remain smaller in urban areas, compared to rural.

Just 10,000 homes were listed for sale on its website as of March 1st, an all-time low. In Dublin, Cork and Galway cities, prices in the first quarter of 2022 were roughly 4 per cent higher on average than a year previously, while in Limerick and Waterford cities the increases were 7.6 per cent and 9.3 per cent respectively.

The report’s author, Trinity College Dublin economist Ronan Lyons, said: “Inflation in housing prices remains stubbornly high – with Covid-19 disturbing an equilibrium of sorts that had emerged, with prices largely stable in 2019 but increasing since.

“As has been the case consistently over the last decade, increasing prices – initially in Dublin and then elsewhere – reflect a combination of strong demand and very weak supply.”


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