Russia's Pleistocene Park doesn't have any T-Rexes roaming its plains. But its owner is preparing for the arrival of another prehistoric beast - the woolly mammoth. Alex Hannaford reports

Nikita Zimov was just two when his family moved to a remote outpost in the far north-eastern corner of Russia. A 13-hour flight from Moscow, this tiny habitation in the north of Siberia was just 40 miles shy of the Arctic tundra and about as remote as you could get. 

Overnight, Zimov’s childhood playground became a landscape carpeted with moss and permafrost. Little did he know at the time, but his father, Sergey, had bigger ideas about who might one day share that playground with him.

It was 1980 and Sergey had gone to work full-time on the North-East Scientific Station, a research base for the study of ecology and climate change. It is now one of the largest research stations in the Arctic.

But it is a side project that Sergey began several years later that has really captured the public imagination: the wild-haired geophysicist is creating a vast nature reserve for the woolly mammoth, a species he fully expects to be brought back from extinction.

Pleistocene Park, as it’s known, is the closest we’re going to get to the real Jurassic Park, the fictitious dinosaur safari park at the centre of the film Jurassic World.

For the last 20 years at least, most scientists have poured scorn on the idea that dinosaurs could be cloned using the method popularised in the first Jurassic Park film — extracting DNA from an insect entombed in resin. A few years ago scientists studying fossils in New Zealand revealed that the bonds that form the backbone of DNA would be entirely degraded — useless — after 6.8 million years. And seeing as dinosaurs last roamed the Earth 65 million years ago, that ruled out any realistic chance of sequencing their genome.

But the woolly mammoth is another matter. The animal – a creature roughly the same size as an African elephant with a hairy coat and 13ft-long tusks – died out just 10,000 years ago, so it is entirely possible to sequence its genome. And, in fact, just this year a team of scientists from Sweden, America, Canada and Russia did just that.

Could the woolly mammoth make a comeback? Credit: © The Natural History Museum / Alamy/The Natural History Museum / Alamy

That doesn’t mean the animal can be cloned: one would need living cells to do that. But scientists are confident they can insert mammoth genes into living elephant cells — essentially swapping out bits of DNA where the elephant sequence differs from the mammoth – and create a cross between the two species, a sort of “hairy elephant”. 

In particular, a team at Harvard University – lead by geneticist Dr George Church – is hoping to produce a type of Asian elephant that can live in the cold climate of the Arctic tundra. 

The question is why. 

According to Revive & Restore, an organisation devoted to the genetic rescue of endangered and extinct species, the tundra and swampy forest ecosystem in Siberia was once a vast grassland known as the mammoth steppe, “home to abundant herds of antelope, deer, horses and mammoths”. When those herds disappeared, the grassland turned to moss and lichen, and this tundra that emerged is contributing to human-driven climate change – in a big way. 

“Without grasslands to insulate the tundra’s permafrost, the permafrost is melting,” says Revive & Restore, “releasing greenhouse gases that have been trapped for hundreds of thousands of years. The melting of the world’s permafrost is equivalent to burning all the world’s forests two-and-a-half times.”

And that’s where Nikita Zimov and his father Sergey come in. Although day-to-day the pair work at the research station – spearheading groundbreaking studies into the causes of Pleistocene extinctions and historic fluctuations in levels of carbon and methane in the atmosphere – their passion is the mammoth park.

The carcass of the world's most well-preserved baby mammoth, named Lyuba, is 42,000 years old Credit: 2012 AFP/AFP

“Step by step, dad came up with the idea of Pleistocene Park,” Nikita tells me via Skype from Siberia, “and discovered how animals could transform the vegetation growing in the landscape. The idea is that animals forage on the moss, shrubs, lichens and some grasses growing in patches, and by doing so they trample down the vegetation. Grasses compete with moss.

But if you introduce animals, grasses dominate. If you remove them, mosses take over. Grasses help animals, animals help grass. So if you get a high density of animals you can see, year by year, how they transform the landscape.”

Nikita explains the science like this: the forest is dark green; grass is light green. The lighter the surface, the more heat from the sun is reflected back to space. And over 10s of millions of square miles, the effect on the atmosphere is enormous. There’s a huge storage of carbon that accumulated in the permafrost during the Pleistocene era (2 million BC to 10,000 BC) – potentially 500 billion tons, which is more than all the above-ground vegetation on the planet. 

The problem is, the permafrost is warming up, increasing by about one degree each decade. At Pleistocene Park it’s around -3C (26.6F). When it gets to zero, all that organic carbon will be released.

“Animals need to eat all year round,” Zimov explains. “Everyone thinks snow is cold but it’s actually a very good heat insulator. The air temperature above could be -40C (-40F) while under the snow it’s -5C (23F). Introduce animals and they trample down that snow, looking for plants. Where animals graze, every single centimetre of snow is trampled at least once or twice a year and it loses its heat-insulating abilities. Pastures freeze so much more with animals present.”

Nikita is certain that he will see, in his lifetime, something that looks akin to a mammoth roaming the steppe that he and his father have created.

Sergey Zimov of Pleistocene Park

But Pleistocene Park, which is paid for out of the Zimovs’ pockets, is only 14,000 hectares. Although a sizeable piece of land, it’s not nearly big enough to have any kind of significant impact on the world’s climate. “I’m not saying our park can solve the global warming issue – not in this century – but if we’re talking about the next thousand years, Pleistocene Park or a bigger Arctic park would allow carbon emissions to drop to pre-industrial levels.”

Beth Shapiro, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, and the author of How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction, says: “The Zimovs have shown convincingly that grazing animals cool down the dirt.

“Sergey has shown in published papers [his studies have appeared in Science, one of the world’s most reputable scientific journals] that the average temperature is 10 to 15 degrees Celsius colder where there are animals than where there aren’t. And obviously if the earth is cold – frozen – then it’s not releasing carbon into the atmosphere. The challenge is going to be scale. How much of this do you have to do in order to really impact the rate at which the permafrost is thawing?”

Is it crazy?

Shapiro laughs. “I like Sergey a lot and I like that he’s a big thinker and what we need are big-thinking, world-changing, position-changing ideas in how we might slow climate change. Whether this is feasible would depend on a lot of people wanting to do this. I don’t know what kind of scale you’d need in order to freeze the soil and slow global warming.

Waiting for the woolly mammoth: Pleistocene Park, Russia

“He has shown this effect happens with horses and bison, and five species of deer. We have these animals. We don’t need to bring anything back to get that effect. But you know, if we have a mammoth – this big grazing herbivore – maybe we can do it faster and better. But I wouldn’t count on that happening any time soon.”

As Shapiro points out, you couldn’t just release one of these woolly elephants into the wild, you’d have to have lots of them. And it takes 14 years for a wild elephant to reach sexual maturity. Last year Shapiro bumped into Sergey Zimov, Nikita’s father, at a conference in Oxford. “I asked him about the problem of the long generation times of mammoths and he asked whether maybe we could re-introduce woolly rhinos instead.”

De-extinction, this process of swapping out genomes in existing animals for traits that their ancestors had, but which they could benefit from today, could have other uses, Shapiro says. “Let’s say all of the natural habitat for elephants disappeared. If we could swap those cold-surviving genes [of the mammoth] into elephants, so that we could stick elephants into wild places in Europe or Siberia where elephants used to live, we could use this technology — not to bring mammoths back but to save elephants.”