Japan courts mammoth controversy

For more than a decade, Kazufumi Goto has been driven by a single ambition that has become close to an obsession: he wants to see herds of woolly mammoths – extinct for thousands of years – roaming the Siberian steppes again.

Genetic material from tissue is key to regenerating the beast
Genetic material from tissue is key to regenerating the beast

Goto says his successful research into using DNA still present in frozen sperm or even soft tissue from a specimen recovered from the Russian permafrost, will allow him to regenerate the massive beasts.

But the head scientist of the Mammoth Creation Project has come up against a major obstacle to his endeavours from a completely unexpected source, one that threatens to put back his research for at least another three years, he says.

“We don’t know exactly what the Aichi 2005 World Exposition organisers are doing or how because there has been no communication between us, but the mammoth that they are planning to put on display there next year is for entertainment, not for science,” he said.

“They are damaging all the hard work that other people have put into this project.”

Symbol of event

Aichi Prefecture, in central Japan, is scheduled to open the six-month 2005 World Expo on 25 March. Around 15 million people are expected to visit the expo, which will showcase well over 100 nations and organisations taking part.

Japanese scientists searching for
frozen remains in August 2002

From the earliest planning stages, the organisers announced that they hoped to be able to recover a complete mammoth from Siberia to use as a symbol of the event.

“The theme of the expo is nature’s wisdom, and the mammoth is regarded as being symbolic of life on Earth 10,000 years ago,” says Ayumi Okamoto, deputy director of the public-relations department.

“We aim to show that we are learning from nature’s wisdom and that in the 21st century we can coexist with the Earth,” she said. “The mammoth will be one way of showing that coexistence.”

Okamoto denied that money had been paid directly to the Republic of Sakha, where the search for a perfect mammoth specimen is under way, but was unable to put a figure on how much has been spent to date on this portion of the expo.

“I cannot say the total budget, although it is a few hundred million yen,” she said.


Scientist Goto, 53, is dismissive of the mammoth being turned into an attraction rather then an opportunity to learn, and has extensive experience in reproductive technology to back him up.

“My team is very disappointed that this is all being done for the sake of exhibiting the mammoth. They’re paying a lot of money just to get some bones; it’s bad for Japan, the expo and science”

Kazufumi Goto,
head scientist,
Mammoth Creation Project

While at Kagoshima University, he introduced an emergency artificial breeding plan to save a unique and rapidly dwindling species of native cow.

“We have to be very careful in analysing the information that is gathered in Siberia,” he said. “My team is very disappointed that this is all being done for the sake of exhibiting the mammoth. They’re paying a lot of money just to get some bones; it’s bad for Japan, the expo and science.”

Vyacheslav Anatolievich Shtyrov, president of the Russian Federation’s Republic of Sakha, has visited Aichi since a memorandum of understanding was signed in January on the future of what has been named the Yukagir Mammoth.

Frozen find

On 8 June, a 30-strong team of scientists – including Russians, Japanese, French, Dutch and an Eritrean researcher – flew by helicopter to a stretch of river bank, about 30km south of a small village named Yukagir, where local people had found a frozen mammoth.

A skull and tusks stored at an
institute in Yakutsk in Siberia

The head of the beast had protruded through the surface, with the rest of its massive body covered by four metres of snow and ice that had helped preserve it. The scientists noted that the carcass still had hair attached, while its last meal was still present in the intestines.

The left foreleg of the mammoth was excavated and shipped to the Institute of Applied Ecology of the North, in Yakutsk, in a large freezer. The head, which the scientists say is in excellent condition, still has skin and hair attached, the eyelid and ear are instantly recognisable and the brain is believed to be intact.

The rear half of the mammoth was not excavated, but the scientists are hoping that it too is intact, somewhere deeper in the river bank. Another survey of the site is scheduled for late August when more of the remains may be recovered.

Money talks

Another group of Japanese scientists with big plans for the mammoth is based at Kinki University, in central Japan. Headed by veteran mammoth hunter Akira Iritani, their plans have also been thrown into disarray by the expo.

Tusks and lengths of vertebrae
found in various Siberian sites

“We have no plans to go back to Siberia this year,” said Iritani. “We have not been able to identify the locations of any good samples, and that’s because the Aichi Expo organisers are spending such large amounts of money there to get the full body of a frozen mammoth.

“I think it will be very difficult for them to recover a complete body, no matter how much money they give – and I’ve heard it’s several hundred million yens – it will still be very hard,” he said.

Iritani’s team hopes to find a mammoth that is sufficiently well preserved in the ice to enable them to extract DNA from the frozen remains, cross-breed the retrieved nuclei with the creatures’ modern-day counterparts – the elephant – and return the resurrected creatures to a vast “safari park” in northern Siberia.

Pleistocene Park, as the project is titled, is to be a joint venture with Russia that will allow visitors to see for themselves creatures that have been extinct for millennia – including mammoths, extinct species of deer and horse, woolly rhinoceroses and even sabre-tooth tigers.

The park will cover an area of about 160 square miles and will need infrastructure for paying tourists and shelter for the animals that will populate it.

DNA needed

But before that can happen, the university researchers have to recover viable DNA, after which an elephant will be artificially inseminated with the nucleus. Each generation of cross-bred mammoths will more closely resemble the genetic inheritance of its forefathers as females are impregnated with more DNA from the male mammoth.

The aim is to find a specimen wellpreserved in Russia’s permafrost

The aim is to find a specimen well
preserved in Russia’s permafrost

“My first aim is to reproduce a mammoth; after that we can decide what we’re going to do with them. The research is the most important part of this project,” said Hiromi Kato, who works with Iritani.

“And anyway, I think that Pleistocene Park would be too cold for mammoths,” he said. “It reaches minus 50 or minus 60 degrees (Celsius) there in winter, so it might be better if the park were in some place like Hokkaido, in northern Japan.

“There is a saying in Japan, that it is better to see one thing than to hear about it 100 times,” he said. “Right now, we can only hear about mammoths, see their fossils – but they’re dead and we can’t hear their voices or see them move.

“If we can reproduce them, then we’ll understand them far better than we would ever be able to from a carcass,” he added.

Source : Al Jazeera

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