The woolly mammoth vanished from the Earth around 4,000 years ago and, until recent decades, it was believed that it would stay that way forever. However, a bioscience firm that has recently raised a huge amount of money begs to differ, as it’s now revealed it is on a mission to bring back the woolly mammoth from extinction. Are we on the brink of a great woolly mammoth comeback? Well, sort of.
The boost in the sizeable chunk of $15 million (£11 million) was raised by the bioscience and genetics company Colossal—which was founded by tech entrepreneur Ben Lamm and George Church, a professor of genetics who has pioneered new approaches to gene editing at Harvard Medical School. The money would be used to produce a “hybrid elephant-mammoth embryo,” Church told The Guardian.
Sorry to break the ice, but we won’t be seeing a real-life rendition of Manny from Ice Age for quite some time. “It would be more like an elephant with a number of mammoth traits. We’re not there yet, but it could happen in a couple of years,” Church continued.
Instead, as the geneticist noted, this lab-formed creature would be partly elephant in genetic structure while also possessing specific features associated with mammoths: small ears, subcutaneous fat, long shaggy hair and cold-adapted blood. The mammoth genes for these traits, which would be spliced into the element DNA, using the gene-editing tool CRISPR, have been given the loveable name of a ‘mammophant’.
Since the conception of the project in 2015, researchers on the team have made significant progress—increasing the number of edits where mammoth DNA is spliced into the elephant genome from 15 to 45. As of 2021, the team has progressed from the ‘cell stage’ and is now moving towards creating embryos of the mammophant. Those leading the project, however, highlight how it will be many years before any serious attempt at producing a living mammophant is conducted.
It begs the question: why go through all this time, effort and money to bring these creatures into existence in the first place? The reasons are twofold: the project argues these scientific advancements could help conserve already existing (but rapidly growing endangered) Asian elephants by equipping them with traits that could allow them to thrive in vast stretches of the Arctic known as the mammoth steppe.
Another reason behind this project, some scientists argue, is that introducing herds of mammophants to the Arctic tundra could help restore degraded habitat. If implemented successfully, there is reason to believe their existence could negate some of the detrimental impacts to the area brought around by the climate crisis—for instance, knocking down trees and restoring the former Arctic grasslands.
However, it’s not as simple as it sounds. Some researchers believe there are more effective ways to restore the tundra. In an interview with Yahoo! News, Doctor Victoria Herridge, an evolutionary biologist at the Natural History Museum, highlights how the enormous scale of the experiment—with no guarantee of its success—makes it an unfeasible method of tackling the climate crisis. “You are talking about hundreds of thousands of mammoths, which each take 22 months to gestate and 30 years to grow to maturity,” she highlighted.
Although I love the idea of humanity one day walking alongside these creatures, there is weight to her argument. Gareth Phoenix, a researcher at the University of Sheffield highlighted how forming mammophants is “proposed as a solution to help stop permafrost thaw because they will remove trees, trample and compact the ground and convert landscapes to grassland, which can help keep the ground cool. However, we know in the forested Arctic regions that trees and moss cover can be critical in protecting permafrost, so removing the trees and trampling the moss would be the last thing you’d want to do.”
Even if the environmental incentive for bringing mammophants into this world was clear cut, the ethical implications of doing so remain somewhat messy. First, we have to remind ourselves that these aren’t simply technological or genetic advances—they’re living, breathing, and most importantly, social creatures. Matthew Cobb, professor of zoology at the University of Manchester urged that we consider the impact these experiments could have on their potential end result, the elephant-mammoth hybrid. Will it be accepted and “greeted by elephants?
As our scientific advancement continues to grow, we’ll continue to be faced with the question of whether humanity should be playing God. Did we learn nothing from the Jurassic Park movies? On one hand, the environmental arguments for de-extinction of the mammoth are persuasive; however, this shouldn’t overshadow the fact that, if successful, we will be bringing very real, sentient and social creatures into the world. Whichever side of the argument you’re on, we still have time for debate—as mentioned above, there is still a lot more science that needs to be done… Until then, the task of bringing back a mammoth is as big as a mammoth itself.
Kaavan, a 36-year-old overweight Asian elephant who was dubbed the ‘world’s loneliest elephant’ after his partner died in 2012, has now landed in Cambodia. After a seven-hour flight from Pakistan, Kaavan received a warm welcome from American singer Cher, who then accompanied him to a sanctuary housing potential mates.
Pakistan’s only Asian elephant has spent years in grim conditions in a controversial Islamabad zoo where he suffered from a lack of exercise as well as cracked and malformed nails due to living in an inappropriate structure. Understandably, the case of Kaavan prompted global uproar from animal rights groups who petitioned for him to be moved from the zoo. Since 2016, Cher has been part of the social media campaign working towards his relocation.
Earlier this year, Islamabad’s High Court closed the zoo over its poor conditions and gave the animal welfare organisation Four Paws permission to remove Kaavan, who Sri Lanka gifted to Pakistan 35 years ago, when he was a baby, according to the organisation.
On Sunday 29 November, Cher travelled to Pakistan to see the elephant off before beginning his plane journey to Cambodia. The pop star even serenaded Kaavan with the song ‘A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes’.
Before the flight, specialists from Four Paws trained the elephant for the small enclosure and loud noises he’d experience on the flight, using bananas and other treats. Amir Khalil, a veterinarian from Four Paws shared that Kaavan’s much-anticipated journey was “uneventful” and that the elephant behaved “like a frequent flyer.” “Kaavan was eating, was not stressed—he was even a little bit sleeping, standing, leaning at the crate wall,” he added.
For Kaavan’s arrival in Cambodia on Monday 30 November, Cher waited to greet him at Siem Reap airport wearing a black face mask and waving excitedly at the plane. “I am so proud he is here,” she told AFP, after greeting Kaavan through an opening at the base of the crate. “He’s going to be really happy here,” added Cher, saying she was hopeful his ordeal was now over.
According to a statement from the Smithsonian Channel, which is producing a documentary on the elephant’s story, Cher found out about Kaavan from people on Twitter. “I thought, ‘how can I fix this? How can I save an elephant who’s been shackled to a shed for 17 years and who is a thousand miles away?’,” she said. “This is Free The Wild’s first big rescue and I am so proud.”
Before Kaavan was transported to the sanctuary, monks offered him bananas and watermelon, chanting prayers and sprinkling holy water on his crate to bless him. Non-profit Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary said in a Facebook post that Kaavan will now live in a huge jungle enclosure, where most of his food will be provided naturally—although he’ll also get fruit treats to “satisfy his sweet tooth.” Three other elephants live at the sanctuary.
Four Paws, along with Islamabad authorities, also safely moved three wolves and some monkeys from the zoo. Two Himalayan brown bears, one deer and one monkey remain in the zoo.