Posted by: Jack | April 21, 2008

The big business of Mammoths

Sometimes you read things about the emerging global crisis of our ecology that are so absurd you don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

One of these is the fact that disastrous melting of the polar icecaps now proceeding is being viewed by many as a huge business opportunity. The governments of Russia, Canada, the US, Norway and Denmark are all preparing for a military build-up in the North as they attempt to claim the newly melted waters, both for the new shipping lanes in the Northwest Passage and because a significant proportion of the world’s remaining oil remains there. Disastrous global warming looks likely to be taken as an opportunity to . . . cause more global warming!

There’s been a fair few articles written in different places about this, and I might try to post something more later. But one thing I came across as an aside really caught my attention-another economic opportunity arising from the melting of the Arctic permafrost is the huge numbers of mammoth bones now being uncovered from the ice.

Thousands of years ago the areas that are Siberian permafrost now were open forests and tundra areas, roamed by mammoths and mastodons (mammoths were grazers, mastodons were browsers, they’re different species.) Over 150 million skeletons are suspected to be lurking in the ice and snow.

Then in the last few thousand years they were wiped out, scientists don’t really agree why. Theories include climate change and overhunting by early humans.

Now thousands of these creatures’ bodies are trapped in the Arctic permafrost. As this melts their bones are emerging (as well as millions of tonnes of trapped methane from the frozen peat bogs, which alone will dramatically advance climate change).

Mammoths were herbivores, and their amazing tusks were teeth that they used to scrape snow and ice away from their food, but maybe also for social purposes-in mating rituals and to show dominance over each other.

As you can see from these examples, they really are some of the most extraordinary teeth ever, only matched by those of whales:

The increasing numbers of specimens available has been greeted with glee by the companies that sell fossils at thousands of dollars a pop.

But it’s not just fossil fans that are excited. Ivory has long been a prized commodity. Before the invention of plastics it had innumerable uses, and it’s estimated that in the year of 1831 alone the ivory consumption by Britain was equivalent to the slaughter of 4000 elephants.

The ivory taken from living African elephants was and is used in piano keys, jewellery and art, billiard balls and snooker cues. It’s also highly prized in Japan for use in little personal seals for putting on documents. This has caused a devastating drop in the number of African elephants. These huge creatures, that live socially in herds, and show signs of emotion and an understanding of death and loss, as well as amazing sonic communication abilities, have been pushed to the brink of extinction.

The early environmental movement made this a key issue, and international political pressure was brought to bear on governments to try and save elephants.

The result of this was that the trade in ivory was effectively banned by international treaty in the 1990s. However, like the get out of “scientific” whaling, there are still loopholes that allow some sales of ivory to take place. Much ivory is exported to China and East Asia to avoid restrictions. And in any case there is a thriving illegal market supplied by poaching.

Those in any doubt that the ivory trade is still a major threat to elephant survival needs to read about events like the 2006 Zakouma elephant slaughter, which has pushed elephants to virtual extinction in Central Africa.

With public pressure, prices inflated by the black market and by the laws regulating trade, those who still want to use ivory are finding it more difficult than the past, but a recent survey found over 27, 000 ivory products for sale in shops across the European Union.

Many are enthusiastically turning to mammoth ivory revealed by global warming as an alternative, as trade in mammoth ivory isn’t regulated by any laws on endangered species. For those such as this bagpipe maker for who ivory just can’t ever be replaced by synthetics, this is an opportunity to get their hands on some.

So along with the military/industrial build-up being planned for the Arctic in coming decades may be another set of businessman-ivory hunters. People living across the Russian Arctic are already realising this and collecting specimens for a flourishing trade with China and Thailand.

Of course it’s a shame that valuable knowledge of the past is being lost as their ancient bones are converted to various luxury goods for the well off of the world. From these specimens we might learn where these creatures lived and how they died. Any marks of being hunted on their ivory might help answer the question of why they became extinct.

But a much bigger problem is the possibility that illegal ivory is now being stained and disguised as mammoth remains to allow it to get on the market. As Dr Esmond Martin of Care for the wild puts it:

“Illegal products are coming in that are being mixed up with the antique stuff. People don’t know whether what they are buying has come from poached elephants.”

Of course, the biggest fantasy of mammoth hunters is that they will be able to take frozen tissues from mammoths and allow a living specimen to be cloned. The permafrost conditions have allowed frozen skin, hair, muscle and bone marrow to be preserved, most famously in this preserved calf found in Siberia last year:

Preserved baby mammoth

A frozen mammoth head was also a star exhibit at the Japan 2005 world expo. Unfortunately for the organisers they had to scale back their original plan to have a whole mammoth display made up of frozen specimens.

Frozen mammoth head at Japan 2005 world expo

Although many scientists consider it unrealistic to get useful DNA from dead mammoths, as the cells would have burst under the freezing conditions, there a series of projects trying to sequence mammoth genetic material with the ultimate aim of bringing them back to life.

There is even a privately funded Japanese project called the Mammoth Creation Project aiming to create a of extinct creatures in North East Siberia. They want to create a reserve which they would populate with mammoths, as well as woolly rhinoceros and maybe even sabre toothed cats if they can find the specimens.

They are looking for frozen mammoth sperm to inject into an elephant egg. By repeating this process over generations they estimate they could create a creature that was 88% mammoth within 50 years.

This of course ignores that it’s virtually impossible for them to find undamaged DNA from the ice, genetic mistakes that could easily lead to horrific birth defects. And as critics point out, this damaged DNA would hardly be suitable to really breed an animal that would be viable-they would be creating a “new mammoth-like creature”, not an actual mammoth.

But none of this seems to be stopping efforts. Perhaps even in the future the resurrected creatures could be tourist attractions and sources of farmed ivory in a newly industrialised Arctic wasteland devastated by global warming.



  1. Mammoths are cool.
    Have you seen the mammoth tusk for sale in the fossil shop in Edinburgh’s cowgate? I wouldn’t buy it myself, but I did buy my sister a small fossil there for her 40th birthday with a note that at least one thing is older than her.

  2. Aaaah! Launch solar shade!

    that top mammoth is mega squidz.

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