The woolly mammoth could soon be granted protected status under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which would make any trade in mammoth ivory strictly illegal.
Technically-speaking, the mammoth cannot be considered an endangered species because it has been dead for around 10,000 years (with the exception of one particularly hardy group that managed to hang on in there until 1650 BCE). But many legislators want to add mammoths to the list to close a loophole in current regulations allowing smugglers to masquerade illegal elephant ivory as the legal mammoth kind. (And sometimes, vice versa.)
While it may be possible to differentiate a mammoth's tusk from an elephant's, the task becomes much harder when the material is turned into ivory trinkets. In fact, it was only after DNA testing that scientists at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland recently discovered mammoth DNA hidden within a batch of ivory items picked up in Cambodia. Officials hope that banning the trafficking of mammoth ivory as well as elephant ivory (which has been illegal since 1990) will make it easier to weed out those dealing in the latter.
Not everybody thinks this is a good thing. Some say mammoth ivory fills a demand for ivory, so banning it outright will put more pressure on elephants and other living sources of ivory, likes walruses and hippos, which are already facing an intense amount of pressure from poachers, climate change, and habitat destruction. And others say that by driving trade underground, legislators may unwillingly attract the attention of criminal organizations.
It's a tricky situation with no simple answers. Previous attempts to list mammoths as a protected species have failed and for this latest attempt to succeed, it will need the approval of at least two-thirds of parties at the CITES conference, due to take place in May.
But if it does get the go-ahead, it will give the woolly mammoth the honorable distinction of being the first ever already extinct species to make the list.