We're no longer going to have elephants at the Woodland Park Zoo. The last two — Bamboo and Chai — are being sent to another facility, ending the zoo's controversial elephant program. Part of the no-elephants argument is that it is inherently cruel to keep elephants in captivity, taking them away from the physical and social environments where they thrive. Asian elephants confined in the Pacific Northwest climate does seem a bit harsh, not to mention the morality of keeping elephants in captivity at all.
Could there ever be an appropriate elephant program?
Elephants — using the term broadly — were at one time native to the Pacific Northwest. Witness the countless woolly mammoth and mastodon bones found throughout the region. Earlier this year, a giant headline-grabbing tusk was unearthed at South Lake Union. (We cannot resist giving even dead elephants cute names: The Burke Museum dubbed the Lake Union find LuLu.)
Mammoths and mastodons populated the steppes and plains of North America and were present as the glaciers retreated at the end of the last ice age. Finds like the nearly 14,000-year-old Manis mastodon bone near Sequim offer proof that the history of Northwest peoples and elephants is a long one. That bone was embedded with a spear tip, hinting at a story far richer and more interesting than our more recent painful and checkered history with zoo and circus elephants. (see Bob Royer's tragic story about "Tusko" and company.)
Scientists believe that mammoths became extinct here about 10,000 years ago, though some small, isolated populations in the far north survived until about 4,000 years ago. The mamoths appear to have been victims of climate change, loss of habitat and hunting.
In part due to a warming climate now, more woolly mammoth remains are coming to light. The recovery of tissues and bodily fluids like blood, preserved for millennia by ice, have raised the real possibility that one day, mammoths could be brought back to life. A 2013 find a 40,000 year-old mammoth corpse in the Siberian permafrost was so well-preserved that scientists have been able to study still-moist tissues and take actual blood samples. (The Russians dubbed their mammoth Buttercup.)
Researchers at Harvard and in South Korea are studying Buttercup's DNA with an eye towards cloning the woolly mammoth back to life. The Smithsonian Channel will broadcast a documentary this month titled "How to Clone A Woolly Mammoth." A complete mammoth genome has yet to be mapped, but some scientists believe that the ancient mammoth's genes could be combined with those of existing Asian elephants to replicate the original woolly beast.
There are ethical issues related to cloning and animal testing — not to mention the care of any animals that result from cloning experiments. Still, the potential to bring back a previously extinct species (the term is "de-extinction”) seems like a huge scientific leap with potential benefits. Stewart Brand, an advocate for de-extinction, has argued, for example, that bringing back the woolly mammoth en masse could make endangered ecosystems more resilient, encouraging the growth of a variety of grasses that would better protect the permafrost endangered by global warming.
We have already successfully reintroduced several native species populations — wolves, bison, grizzly bears — to the North American wilds. Would it be possible to create and reintroduce a "wild" clone-based population of woolly mammoths in a suitable habitat? Other species recommended for de-extinction include the passenger pigeon, Stellar’s sea cow and Tasmanian Tiger.
And Brand is thinking big. As reported by Nathaniel Rich in an excellent overview of the pros and cons of de-extinction in the New York Times Magazine earlier this year, Brand says "We’re bringing back the mammoth to restore the steppe in the Arctic. One or two mammoths is not a success. 100,000 mammoths is a success."
Yes, it's all a bit Jurassic Park, and it could go terribly wrong. But, as humans likely contributed to the extinction of the mammoth, would it not be a positive step to attempt to pull the species out of oblivion? And what if, as Brand argues, de-extinction could help restore or preserve ecosystems that keep the planet healthy? Could the process of de-extinction, not unlike zoos, also raise awareness of the need to protect and manage endangered species and the science and even genetic engineering that might require?
It's unlikely that we'll see mammoth herds wandering the prairies of Sequim or blocking traffic in South Lake Union any time soon. But the de-extinction of the mammoth could be a way to channel our fascination with elephants and other creatures into something truly wondrous and potentially restorative for the planet.