Rewilding is “large-scale conservation aimed at restoring and protecting natural processes and core wilderness areas.” In North America and Europe, projects are underway to protect and reintroduce large wildlife, including predators, and reverse habitat loss.
Pleistocene rewilding seeks to restore ecosystems from ten thousand years ago – for example, by introducing elephants, lions, and cheetahs to protected areas in the American Great Plains.
Rewilding aims to save animals and ecosystems, but a project now underway in Siberia is “a radical geoengineering scheme” with a human-centric goal: to slow climate change.
During the last Ice Age, vast areas of grasslands beyond the edges of glaciers locked up huge amounts of carbon in Siberia (not something universal in the Arctic.) As today’s permafrost melts, release of all that carbon dioxide threatens to create a positive feedback that would accelerate global warming and make climate change worse for you and me – and our progeny. But returning these areas to Pleistocene grassland could slow or prevent the change by keeping “permafrost frozen by giving it a top coat of Ice Age grassland.”
All we need are the animals that created that grassland ecosystem. Horses, bison, musk ox, and reindeer have already been moved into what was once a Soviet-era gulag of gold mining, but the project needs something bigger – mammoths.
Cloning may jump into your mind, but it’s not likely. DNA degrades even when frozen and we may never find a viable mammoth cell. But mammoths are closely related to elephants, and scientists from across the globe are working to resurrect the mammoth by turning on genes that will adapt elephants to the Arctic climate by giving them heavy coats, thick layers of fat, and smaller ears, among other changes.
That seems like the easy part. If embryos are eventually created, they can’t be placed in surrogate elephant mothers – Asian elephants are endangered. So artificial wombs are needed.
A womb isn’t just a bucket of fluid.
The mammalian mother–child bond, with its precisely timed hormone releases, is beyond the reach of current biotechnology. But scientists are getting closer with mice… [There are] hopes to deliver the first woolly mammoth to Pleistocene Park within a decade.
Even if the technical problems are solved, there’s still a cultural issue. A baby needs a mother. Elephants – and, no doubt, mammoths – are highly social animals.
Older mammoths would have taught the calf how to find ancestral migration paths, how to avoid sinkholes, where to find water. When a herd member died, the youngest mammoth would have watched the others stand vigil, tenderly touching the body of the departed with their trunks before covering it with branches and leaves. No one knows how to re-create this rich mammoth culture, much less how to transmit it to that cosmically bewildered first mammoth.
It’s an amazing, overwhelming undertaking. But there are people out there working on it. Perhaps we’ll see reconstructed, de-extincted mammoths in our lifetime.