Mammoth Task

By Michael Gregson | Published: 2:00 AM Sep 22 2021
Columns Mammoth Task

By Michael Gregson 

The Human-elephant conflict costs hundreds of lives every year in Sri Lanka – among both people and pachyderm. In the first six months of this year the struggle between the two-legged and fourlegged inhabitants of the island resulted in the deaths of 55 people and almost three times as many elephants.

 Official statistics compiled by the Department of Wildlife Conservation showed that 318 elephants were killed in 2020 compared with 407 in 2019. The figures rank Sri Lanka as the world’s number one country for elephant deaths due to conflicts with humans. Sri Lankans – especially Buddhists – profess to love and revere the elephant, but the record would seem to show otherwise.

 International controversy has been sparked by a Sri Lankan court upholding an earlier decision to allow the return of 14 elephants in Government custody to alleged traffickers who captured them or people accused of buying the animals from them. 

The move has been widely condemned by conservationists, with Aruna Medagoda, lawyer for the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society, describing it as “absolutely arbitrary and the rule of law has been completely ignored”. The elephants are part of a group of 39 jumbos taken into Government custody as evidence in wide-ranging investigations into elephant trafficking between 2010 and 2015.

 The traffickers and the people who bought the animals from them were accused of capturing elephant calves in national parks and smuggling them out in the back of vehicles. In many cases, the mothers were killed to capture their calves. 

Environmentalists argued the elephants belonged to the state and should therefore remain in Government custody. They said they would now go to higher courts. Al Jazeera reports that video clips and photographs of some of the animals being forced onto trucks following the order drew angry responses from people. 

“OMG! Heartbreaking,” wrote one. “Wicked people,” said another. “May all those who are responsible reincarnate as elephants in their next birth and get the same treatment,” said one angry comment. Official data shows nearly 100 elephants are currently in private hands. Asian elephants once ranged from West Asia, through the Indian subcontinent, and all the way north to the Yangtze River in China. 

Today, there are less than 50,000 wild elephants found in only 13 countries across Asia. Most are in India, with around 7,500 left in the wild in Sri Lanka, where the expansion of villages and farms in Sri Lanka has contributed to dwindling supplies of food and water for the animals. 

Yet, amid this somewhat bleak picture, an American company is trying to bring back woolly mammoths to the Arctic, ten thousand years after they became extinct. The possibility of recreating the giant beasts has been studied for years. 

Now researchers have fresh funding which they think can make it a reality. The boost comes from $15million raised by the bioscience and genetics company Colossal, co-founded by entrepreneur Ben Lamm, and George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School in the US. Like something out of the movie “Jurassic Park” the scientists are aiming to create an elephant-mammoth hybrid by making embryos in the laboratory that carry mammoth DNA. 

The starting point for the project involves taking skin cells from Asian elephants, which are threatened with extinction, and reprogramming them into more versatile stem cells that carry mammoth DNA.

The particular genes that are responsible for mammoth hair, insulating fat layers and other cold climate adaptions are identified by comparing mammoth genomes extracted from animals recovered from the permafrost with those from the related Asian elephants. These embryos would then be carried to term in a surrogate mother or potentially in an artificial womb. 

If all goes to plan – and the hurdles are far from trivial – the researchers hope to have their first set of calves in six years. “Our goal is to make a coldresistant elephant, but it is going to look and behave like a mammoth. Not because we are trying to trick anybody, but because we want something that is functionally equivalent to the mammoth, that will enjoy its time at -40Co, and do all the things that elephants and mammoths do, in particular knocking down trees,” Professor Church told the Guardian. 

But Dr Victoria Herridge of Britain’s Natural History Museum said the plan was “implausible”. Others might call it a waste of money that would be better spent on preserving the elephants we have.

By Michael Gregson | Published: 2:00 AM Sep 22 2021

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