Elephant poaching is an enormous problem. From 2002 to 2012 central Africa lost 60% of its elephants to ivory poachers. The potential solutions vary in their methods a great deal. Some central African conservation groups have even hired Israeli ex-military commandos to help reorganize their anti-poaching efforts and provide conflict resolution assistance. Some scientists are taking a different approach and think the right way to curb poaching is to introduce mammoth DNA into the elephant population, and create a mammoth-elephant hybrid that, they think, will dissuade would-be elephant hunters. Playing God usually works out well, right?
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the sort of dissuasion professor George Church and his team at Harvard University are after is a kind of giant, prehistoric, poacher-smashing monster. That’d be pretty cool, and pretty terrifying. It’s not, though. The mammoth genes are to give the elephants cold-resistance to allow them to live in cooler climates than their native Africa or India. Church also plans on inserting non-mammoth DNA to reduce the size of the elephants’ tusks, or remove them altogether. That’s right, the way to save the elephants is to get them to move to a completely new climate, and remove some of their primary defenses and tools.
To be fair, elephants are poached for their tusks. Elephant tusks are made of ivory, and ivory is still in huge demand both as a status symbol and as a folk medicine. While the vast majority of ivory buyers would support flat bans of ivory, if it’s still selling, they’re still buying.
Consequently, many have suggested that the way to stop poaching is to attack the ivory itself. Conservation groups have funded campaigns to attempt to make ivory “less cool,” and some scientists have advocated a sort of opposite tactic: growing elephant and rhino tusks in laboratories to meet the demand without the hassle of elephant killing.
Then there’s the plan to genetically engineer the elephant out of the equation. Professor George Church has spent the last 11 years sequencing the mammoth genome found preserved in the Arctic. A series of papers are soon to be published detailing that work, and the process of using an artificial womb to grow genetically modified elephants He found 44 genes that separate elephants from mammoths and would like to add some of those genes into the modern elephant population, including the genes that gave mammoths shaggy coats (the woolly genes, apparently) and blood that withstands extreme cold.
Apart from saving the elephants from poaching, Church says these hybrids will be vital to the health of the Arctic tundra, where mammoth populations prevented the release of greenhouse gasses through their dietary habits.
“My goal is not to bring back the mammoth, it’s to bring back mammoth genes and show that they work. We have got 44 mammoth genes that have been resurrected. If we get this thing out into the wild, it will be more than just a cold-resistant elephant, it won’t be limited to mammoth genes.
We’re putting in genes that reduce the tusk size to prevent poaching, making them so they can eat a broader range of plants.
That seems a bit overly optimistic. First, won’t reducing the size of elephant tusks mean that more elephants have to die to meet demand? Second, unless a warm climate makes a person especially prone to animal cruelty, how does a colder climate dissuade poachers?
What if we got rid of their tusks completely? Well, according to the conservation group EleAid, elephants actually use their ivory:
Principally, [tusks] are formidable weapons against potential predators like the tiger…or in battle against other elephants. They are also used to aid foraging, digging, stripping bark and moving things out of the way.
To save the elephants, let’s send them to a new climate and remove their defenses and environment manipulation tools. What could go wrong?