photo by Flickr user Cody
Listing a long-gone species as “endangered” seems like the ultimate case of locking the paddock gate after the velociraptor has torn up the control room. But in a recent case, the action may make a certain amount of sense.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, usually abbreviated CITES, will likely take up the matter of listing the woolly mammoth as endangered either this year or next. As you may remember from science class, most woolly mammoths died off around 10,000 years ago. A smaller sub-population made it until about 4,000 years ago, but even they are gone. So how can an animal that no longer exists become endangered?
A demand for ivory and warmer temperatures revealing new mammoth remains have combined to create a brisk trade in mammoth tusks. In the Russian republic of Yakutia (also known as the Sakha Republic), prospectors can apply for permits to gather mammoth remains from the surface. But many others search for mammoth ivory illegally, drawn by the top prices such materials command. According to The Wall Street Journal, mammoth ivory can be worth up to $1,000 per kilo (2.2 pounds), and both legal and illegal extractions are booming. China’s decision to ban the import and sale of elephant ivory in 2016 has only increased demand.
Russian News Agency TASS estimates that sanctioned prospectors recover about 100 tons of mammoth tusks per year. Illegal mining recovers about 200 tons. These Russian figures likely come close to covering the worldwide total. While mammoth remains do sometimes turn up outside Yakutia, the area is home to 80% of known mammoth remains in the world.
Recovering remains without a permit is a problem in that it is illegal. And illegal prospecting can also involve violating environmental law by employing powerful pumps to break below the region’s permafrost. Yet these violations alone do not answer the question of why CITES would extend a status usually reserved for living creatures to long-dead mammoths. The answer has two parts: one that is fairly pedestrian and another that leans toward science fiction.
The simple answer to why CITES might list mammoths as endangered is as a way to protect their living relatives. Experts worry that legal trade in mammoth ivory could mask illegal trade in elephant ivory. Protecting mammoths would, in this sense, be a way to protect living elephants.
The more complex reason CITES might protect an extinct species is that, if scientists have their way, mammoths might not remain extinct after all.
A few years ago, a team of Harvard scientists expressed public optimism about “de-extinction” efforts centered on the mammoth. The project began in 2015, based in part around the CRISPR technology developed a few years earlier that made it possible to “edit” DNA. A team from Yatutsk, Russia had discovered a nearly complete mammoth carcass in 2013, preserved in permafrost. This discovery prompted scientists around the world, including the Harvard team, to work toward restoring the mammoth to life in some form.
Initial exuberance over the prospect of bringing mammoths back has since given way to the realization that reviving an extinct species is hard, or maybe impossible, with today’s technology. Hybridizing mammoths with modern elephants, their cousins, might be somewhat easier, since it would not require a fully intact sample of mammoth DNA. The Harvard scientists have said their aim is to produce a hybrid embryo or, as professor George Church told The Guardian in 2017, “more like an elephant with a number of mammoth traits.” Asian elephants, the mammoths’ closest living relative, share 99% of the extinct animal’s DNA.
Regardless of whether your aim is a clone or a hybrid, the better the DNA sample, the better the prospect for success. The widespread and growing problem of illegal mammoth exhumation means nobody can carefully examine all the available samples to identify the remains with the most complete DNA to insert in modern-day cells. The perfect mammoth carcass may simply rot once traders take its valuable ivory.
Scientists, meanwhile, are on the clock when new remains are found. Postmortem DNA is very delicate and can begin to deteriorate within hours. Experiments using mammoth DNA have, thus far, been limited by the quality of the samples. The best mammoth DNA might reside somewhere deep inside the huge dead beast, someplace scientists could identify and preserve – if they had access.
None of this addresses the bigger issue of restoring an extinct species to the modern world in the first place, or cross-breeding an extinct creature and a modern one to create an offspring that nature never bothered to deliver on its own. Even if we can’t do these things now, chances are good we will be able to do it eventually. Should we?
There are the practical issues, of course. Is there such a thing as suitable mammoth habitat today? Nobody knows, since nobody was around to record the conditions in which the species thrived before it started to die off. Even if such habitat exists, modern life forms that outlasted the mammoth in the evolutionary battle now occupy it. To those modern life forms, the mammoth is an invasive, if not totally alien, species. Either the mammoth won’t gain a foothold (bad) or it will (potentially worse).
Are we reviving the mammoth to prove we can do it? To create a new tourist attraction for our zoos? A lot of people don’t want today’s wild cetaceans captured and confined. It is not a big leap to imagine they might object to a mammoth that is never given a chance to exist in the wild at all. While we don’t know much about mammoth intelligence and social behavior, we can extrapolate from their present-day cousins. Modern elephants are extremely intelligent creatures with a complex social and family structure. It is possible that reviving the mammoth to keep it in captivity could ultimately be an act of cruelty.
These questions are not confined to mammoths. We will need to consider whether we should restore other species if we get the chance – and if so, which species. Think of the extinct passenger pigeon, whose huge flocks darkened Eastern U.S. skies long before and for several decades after the Civil War. The passenger pigeon feasted on acorns, beechnuts and farmers’ crops. They covered everything they passed in droppings. How will we feel if a flock of these birds descends, say, on Manhattan’s Central Park? New Yorkers may argue that they already have all the pigeons they need, thank you very much.
How about the dodo, exterminated from the island of Mauritius in the 1600s? Or the ivory-billed woodpecker, which may or may not be extinct today? Notice that except for one corny reference at the beginning of this piece, I have not even mentioned dinosaurs nor alluded to “Jurassic Park.” I am not going to go there, though I suspect many readers went there without my help.
We need to decide whether we want CITES to be in the business of restoring species for who-knows-what purpose to live who-knows-where and claim nobody-knows-what ecological niche from some unknowable species that now occupies it. Even if you don’t think de-extinction is inherently a bad idea, you could argue that CITES should stick to trying to protect the many contemporary species precariously hanging on to life on a fast-changing planet.
The science- and nature-loving parts of me would love nothing better than to see a living woolly mammoth. What could be cooler than a chance to see a creature that found life was not worth living after the Ice Age?
But the more practical part of me cautions that this idea doesn’t seem sensible. The mammoth had its time on earth, a time that ended somewhere around the era the pyramids of Giza were being constructed. One set of giants rose as another declined. It has always been the way of the world, and we mess with it at our peril.