From my Hide: Old ivory and a new scandal…

CHINESE customs officials at Heilongjiang on the border with Russia have seized over a ton of woolly mammoth ivory hidden in false compartments in the bottom of a truck.

The haul consisted of 107 mammoth tusks, and they also found 37 woolly rhino horns and over a ton of jade.* There is a burgeoning illegal trade in jade in China.

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Increasing amounts of woolly mammoth ivory and woolly rhino horn are flooding the market in modern elephant ivory and rhino horn as more and more of the frozen tundra of Siberia retreats northwards because of global warming.

It is very difficult to tell the difference between the ancient ivory and rhino horn and modern elephant ivory and rhino horn and the confusion is helping to fuel the illegal trade in these products.

The woolly mammoths and rhinos roamed North America, Europe, Asia and Africa during the last Ice Age, but became extinct about 4,500 years ago, helped along by climate change and hunting by humans.

In an example of extreme irony, a team of geneticists at Harvard University in the United States of America is creating the DNA blueprint of the woolly mammoth and they believe that they may even be able to produce one of the giant beasts within the next two years.*

It seems a little odd that given the status of today’s elephant populations in Africa and Asia, which are facing possible extinction because of the illegal international ivory trade, that anyone should be considering bringing back the woolly mammoth, probably to be driven to extinction all over again.

Meanwhile, staying with woolly mammoths, using the latest dating techniques, Japanese scientists have established that a huge fossilised tooth found on the northern tip of the country’s main island, Honshu, is that of a mammoth that rumbled around Japan between 700,000 and 1.1-million years ago.

The great beast was the Palaeoloxodon numanni, ancestor to the elephants of today.*

And in Saudi Arabia a team of international researchers and scientists led by the Saudi Geological Survey has found the two metre long tusk of an extinct elephant species in the Nafud Desert in north western Saudi Arabia.

The find was made at the site of an ancient lake.

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Other finds in the past have included those of giant elephants, horses, wild cattle and wild dogs, hyenas and birds of prey.*

And finally, the world’s oldest (once) living vertebrate, a female Greenland shark, has been aged at about 400 years old.

The shark was accidentally killed as by-catch by fishermen, but it did give scientists a chance to establish just how old Greenland sharks can be.

Aging these magnificent creatures has always been difficult, but this time the scientists were able to apply a new aging method, taking tissue from the specimen’s eye lens and by using radio-carbon dating (used in the aging of fossils) to establish a reasonably accurate age.

Given a degree of leeway, 400 years is still a lot older than the previously oldest specimen, a bowhead whale some 211 years old.

Invertebrates take the longevity record, however, with a 507 year old marine clam.**

*Save the Elephant News Service.

**The Week: the Best of the British and Foreign Media.


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David Holt-Biddle

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