Climate Change: Mammoth Tusks and De-extinction Will Reframe Debate


The time has come for tusk hunting tourism, claiming oil, and species revival. Want to make a statement about global climate change? Have a footloose desire to ramble in parts previously covered by sheets of ice? Then perhaps now is the time to join adventurers: the Russian and Chinese governments and scientists in the slowly melting arctic world as they uncover what lies beneath the ice.

Out in the northern tundra to the north of Siberia and in northern Canada, indigenous people and opportunist have been collecting the tusks of the extinct mammoth and selling the precious ivory on a largely unregulated, emerging marketplace. According to photographer Evgenia Arbugaeva and writer Brook Larmer in their National Geographic report, there are millions of tusks out in the Tundra waiting to be found, the best specimens of which can make $60,000-$100,000.

Around 12,000 years ago, the mammoths went extinct.

Their extinction was a result of the warming age (continuing today) known as the Holocene and hunting by early humans. Now, as a result of global climate change, the arctic ice is melting, revealing more of the ancient tusks than were possible to get in the past. The National Geographic report begins with a profile of Karl Gorokhov. Karl is in the midst of a five-month tusk hunt. He is eating seagulls and walking 18 hours a day over the tundra, all for the mammoth tusks.

In recent years, the ivory trade, largely based in China, has created a demand for mammoth tusks. In a report done by NPR, 90% of all the tusks found end up in China where they are turned into “mammoth trinkets” or transformed into pieces of art that can sell for upwards of $1 million.

Despite being hard to find, the trade of mammoth ivory is a lucrative business.

However, some scientists are intrigued by the mammoth tusks for other reasons. Finding specimens of extinct animals can contribute to the growing science of animal De-extinction. I will not make a Jurassic Park tag-line here. In his article for National Geographic, Carl Zimmer explains that it all began with a bucardo, a wild goat that roamed the Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain. On July 30, 2003, a team of French and Spanish scientist, after implanting 57 surrogate mothers and six successful pregnancies, delivered one 4.5 pound, brutally deformed and unspeakably grotesque clone.

OK, that was a bit of an exaggeration with the “brutally deformed and unspeakable grotesque” part. But, the clone did struggle to breathe and it died after ten minutes.

The door has officially been opened to the world of de-extinction and the emerging, unfrozen world of the tundra is providing scientist with ample DNA for the regeneration of many other animals; namely, the mammoth.

The regeneration of the mammoth would, as ecologist Sergey Zimov argues in the National Geographic article, help to restore the shrinking bio-diversity of planet Earth. In a very Jurassic Park-like scenario, Zimov promotes the idea of adding regenerated mammoths to horses and muskoxen that have been relocated to a region of Siberia known as Pleistocene Park. The goal would be to restore the region to its grassland-like state that it was 12,000 years ago.

The hunt for the treasures buried under the arctic ice is currently an exploration left largely to opportunists who are looking beyond the climate change debates in favor of an “it is what it is” approach to the world we live in.

Along with this mentality is the Columbian-esque quest for oil that lies underneath the frozen ice of the tundra. As the ice continues to recede, China and Russia are in what NPR dubs a “free-for-all” over the 90-billion barrels of oil the U.S Geological Survey estimates to be in the arctic. With 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30% of the undiscovered natural gas lying in the Arctic Alaska, the Amerasia Basin and the East Greenland Rift Basins, there has been a race to explore and probe into the melting ice. In the case of Russia, this went as far as planting a titanium flag on the seafloor of the North Pole itself.

The early bird will always get the worm.

So it is the way of the world. While the arguments over environmental policy and science continue, the world we live in continues to change and many people continue to adapt to the changing world. There are new places to be seen and money to be made and humans cannot survive without finding or making either of them.

Last week, the New York Times reported on a study published in the journal Science by a team at Oregon State University that found the Earth’s temperatures to be the warmest they have been in 4,000 years. Meanwhile, chronic private email detective Larry Bell nails proponents of global climate change in Forbes magazine pointing to data that the U.S. is actually experiencing less frequent hurricanes (in exchange for crippling droughts) and the decrease of drought in places like Australia (in exchange for record high temperatures and spontaneous brush-fires).

Environmental policy continues to be the battle of the global warming alarmist and the oil tycoons, of the New World Order verses anarchy, of science verses science; all while it remains a debate of policy alone. In reality, we have moved on. People are in the world, whether warming or not, and are adapting to it. The argument is no longer whether humans are changing the climate or not.

We are here.

Going forward, we need to decide what living in a rapidly changing physical world will look like, and starting to define that world begins in living outside of the debate. Defining life during climate change deals with wondering if it is our place to bring back extinct animals or if it is our place to terraform Earth or deciding if finding more oil is really where countries want to plant their flags.

Pack your bags and travel to the arctic. Defining life outside of the climate change debate begins with picking up a mammoth tusk.