The world’s boldest rewilding project may see the return of the woolly mammoth

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IThe isolated waste of north-eastern Siberia can be seen both with all its natural power to the terrifying, deadly reality of climate change – but also a solution so novel that it may have been the ancient world of the planet before the arrival of civilized man. Immerse yourself in history.

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It’s a project that could, one day, see woolly mammoths once again roaming north to help them meet the most modern challenges.

The remote location where scientists are most likely working on this solution is on the banks of the Kolyma River, outside the small town of Chersky.


This is a place where the weather, like many other places around the world, has turned bad in recent months.

The region has experienced record-breaking heat waves over the past two years, resulting in tinderbox conditions as dry vegetation clogged with life.

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I had to pass through eleven time zones to reach a place that is deep in the wildest part of Russia’s vast landmass.

Flying from Yakutsk to Chersky, I could see thick, gray tendrils of smoke spreading across the sky in his own Rorschach test.

After a short trip by road, I came across a spot where the southern bank of Colima was burning. The botanical staple Tinder was caught by lightning just in time.

In Stalin’s time, it was so inaccessible, it was home to one of the most icy gulags in Soviet Russia, who were sent there, destined to work in the nearby gold mines.

My hosts were on the North Shore; Home of the Northeast Science Station where the scientific father-son team of Sergei and Nikita Zimov are carrying out their unique plan to fight climate change.

The station itself juts out over the river, and a giant Soviet-era satellite dish on its roof points out to the surrounding mountains, floodplains, and boreal forests.

Founded by Sergei in 1988, the place is his hive of researchers, academics and documentarians who are there to contribute to his plan for the planet.

No one can call it a pleasant place. In winter the temperature drops to -55C. In Stalin’s time, it was so inaccessible, it was home to one of the most icy gulags in Soviet Russia, who were sent there, destined to work in the nearby gold mines.

Yet what Zimov is planning for the region is undeniably beautiful. For the past 33 years, he and his supporters have been slowly transforming the landscape in an effort to restore the local ecology to what it was like in the Pleistocene epoch, which ended about 11,700 years ago.

The result is a 62-square-mile area named Pleistocene Park that they hope will be the same world as it was before any breath of civilization.

This visit became especially important to me because it turned out that the project had been approved 30 years ago by my grandfather, Professor Sokolov, who was then the head of biology at the Soviet Academy of Sciences. He signed the article on this principle with the words “For immediate publication”. It built up the park in under two weeks, and I was going to see results after all these years.

When I told Sergei about the connection, he looked grateful. “I am indebted to him till the day I die. People really believed in the value of science in the Soviet Union”, he said with a smile at me.

To help me understand what they wanted to achieve, Zimov first took me to a man-made ice cave. Underground, they have created a labyrinth of tunnels and stairs about 25 meters deep.

Nikita picked up clumps of frozen earth from the surrounding wall as we descended, explaining to me how permafrost can run down hundreds of meters—and span almost a quarter of the Northern Hemisphere. Giant veins of brown ice sat alongside the cold soil, some of which were as old as 30,000 years.

The name “permafrost” suggests permanence, whatever the reality, they told me. As it melts, it flows into streams or collects in stagnant, bubbling thermokarst pools. It damages everything sitting on top of it, be it roads, homes or schools.

Indeed, currently in Chersky, one apartment block has had to be evacuated. It was fighting a losing battle to keep itself upright as the ground beneath it had become hollow, forcing everyone to move inside from their homes.

Yet the problem of the loss of permafrost is a bigger challenge than the damage to a local area.

There are hundreds of thousands of years of dead animals and plants buried under the ground, which means massive amounts of potentially harmful emissions.

As this organic matter decomposes, greenhouse gases are released; Specifically, the potent warming gas: methane.

This helps to warm the planet, and the rate at which it is being emitted only increases with higher global warming helping to further warm the planet.

A recent UN environment report has warned that even if we stay on track with our global 1.5C target, nearly a third of Russian permafrost could melt. If it reaches 2C that number swells to half – and the worst-case scenario going forward would be total permafrost collapse.

That was the reason I traveled here so much. I had heard that Sergei and Nikita had developed a surprising solution to help prevent this environmental Armageddon.

His solution was natural. Together they were attempting to launch perhaps the most important reconstruction project on the planet.

For more than 20 years, they have transported musk oxen, bison, horses, reindeer, goats and other herds from around the world, all animals that once populated the northern steppe.

“I want to bring the animals back to Siberia,” said Nikita.

His idea stems from a theory honed by decades of research, namely that the flora and fauna of the Pleistocene epoch was an ecosystem that was far more efficient at preserving the temperature of the permafrost than the vast forests found in Siberia today.

In the time of the Mammoth Steppe, the Northern Hemisphere was filled with grasslands that stretched across Eurasia, from present-day Spain to Canada.

Yet by 14,500 years ago, temperatures warmed, rainfall increased, and humans found they had new hunting grounds. They migrated north of Eurasia and into America, hunting animals along the way.

With the animals gone, pastures could not be sustained, and with them came an important natural process that preserved permafrost for millions of years.

Snow left untouched on the ground, paradoxically, forms an insulating layer that protects the soil from bitter winter temperatures. To get to the grass below, the animals paw and trample on this insulating blanket of snow, compressing it.

Snow left untouched on the ground, paradoxically, forms an insulating layer that protects the soil from bitter winter temperatures.

To get to the grass below, the animals set foot on this insulating blanket of snow and compress it.

Unknowingly, they were transferring the cold temperatures of the winter months to the soil making it colder.

Now, the permafrost will melt at a much faster rate, without freezing ice. Sergei and Nikita are working to reverse this.

They are already implementing their plan to see if the theory works.

There are now around 150 animals in his park that have been selected for a purpose. Goats are particularly effective at eating weeds; Horses can break through thick snow in winter; Camels eat the bushes of the park.

And the results achieved so far are cause for optimism: Soil is accumulating more carbon in places where there are grazing animals. Less fetid pools of muddy methane-bubbling sludge are forming.

Even the grasslands themselves are proving to be better for the environment. Yellow grasses are reflecting sunlight and their deep roots increase soil carbon storage.

Overall, the permafrost temperatures in the area they’re working on average 2.2C colder.

Nikita took me to Duvni Yar, the world’s largest permafrost thawed beach, where with each thaw is tantalizing evidence of Pleistocene life.

Scattered along the beach were the bones of animals that emerged from the permafrost for the first time in thousands of years to see the summer sun.

It took a four-hour boat ride to reach there. It only took me five minutes to find my first bone—the reindeer’s jaw—and before I even stepped on a piece of mammoth.

“It’s part of the right hip bone,” Nikita said with impressive scientific clarity.

His father, Sergei, told me about bone counts done on an average square kilometer of soil in the area. One woolly mammoth, five bison, eight horses and 15 reindeer were found. Along with these animals are the remains of rare breeds such as moose and even a woolly rhinoceros, as well as hunters such as the cave lion that followed them.

Revisiting a place like this is no easy task. To bring bison into the area, you’ll have to move them halfway across the planet.

When we arrived, Nikita was waiting for a batch of 12 of them to arrive from Denmark. Their journey, first to Smolensk on the Russian border, then to Chersky’s final boat trip to Arkhangelsk port, seemed drawn out and perhaps quite miserable.

It was also expensive, costing over $60,000 to transport.

Yet bringing in goats or horses is not the final plan for the Zimovs. To truly return the land to its Pleistocene-state with all the carbon capture benefits, his dream is to bring back the same animal that most defined his environment: the woolly mammoth.

These animals, he explained to me, were the true “engineers” of permafrost. His six-ton ​​weight made him perfect for crushing snow and stomping on plants, and he even felled trees for the fun of it, making way for meadows with ease.

How they will do this will have to be seen around the world. At Harvard Medical School, on America’s east coast, one of the professors is working to recreate the woolly mammoth.



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