Camels are adapting to their first Siberian winter. Image: Pleistocene Park
In the far north-east of Russia – inside the Arctic Circle, further east than Japan – a mini-caravan of camels are adapting to their first Siberian winter. It’s -20C.
Do camels like the snow?
“I am not sure any animals really like the snow, but camels do well,” says Nikita Zimov. “We will be able to tell better next year. But they have extremely good fur so they should be good.”
Camels are just one of the unexpected animals found in Pleistocene Park. There are bison, yak, cows, goats and sheep.
The park was started by Nikita’s scientist father Sergey. In 1984 he was stationed in remote Siberia to study the ecology. When the Soviet Union disintegrated, Sergey stayed.
He discovered two things. During the Pleistocene period, ending 11,000 years ago, Siberia was like the Serengeti. Sergey found remains of lions, wolves and other large mammals including the largest of all – mammoths. He was also the first to realise that thawing permafrost would release enormous volumes of greenhouse gases.
So Sergey came up with an unconventional solution. “The aim of Pleistocene Park is to restore grazing ecosystems,” Nikita says. “To create the world’s largest and richest true wild ecosystem and through that mitigate climate change.”
Joined by his son, Sergey established a zone of 20sq km and introduced herds of grazing animals to the area to replicate conditions seen during the last Ice Age.
“Unlike North America and Europe, most of Russia was not glaciated,” Nikita explains. Since then, the steppes have been taken over by forests. In tropical areas, trees are important carbon absorbers, but in cold regions they shelter the earth, trapping heat that melts the permafrost.
Turning forests into grasslands keeps the ground cooler, especially when it’s covered in snow. And if that snow is trampled by herds of animals, it becomes a compact layer that keeps the ground frozen for longer.
The impact of the climate crisis is most notable in the extremes – and the Zimovs live on the extreme. In 30 years they’ve noticed changes.
“Over the last three decades, temperatures increased by 3C,” says Nikita. “Winter is getting shorter, milder. Those changes are already visible not only to meteorologists but to regular people.”
Thawing permafrost is already responsible for the same level of carbon dioxide emissions as all international passenger flights. And it becomes a cycle – the higher the temperature gets, the more emissions; and rising carbon dioxide emissions drive up the temperature. That’s why innovations like the Zimovs’ are worth paying attention to. The results are coming in.
“Animals grazing are allowing grasses and herbs to become the dominant vegetation,” Nikita says. “We have more carbon in the soil, because productive vegetation is creating deeper root system. Grasslands and meadows are reflecting higher portion of energy back to space, staying cooler than dark forest and shrublands.”
The animal that could speed up the return of grasslands the most is the mammoth. Problem is, none have been around for a while.
They are, however, resurfacing at an alarming rate. Climate writer Simon Mundy found plenty when he visited the Batagaika Megaslump, 1000km west of the park. It’s a bizarrely named but vitally important place.
They have found incredibly well-preserved mammoths. Some of them actually ave liquid blood
“It’s an enormous hole in the ground created by the thawing permafrost,” Mundy says. “A visually spectacular illustration of the scale and force of what’s happening.”
Twenty-five years ago the slump was barely a ditch; now it could swallow the Sydney Opera House. It’s exposed a vast wedge in the permafrost, expanding at 14 metres per year.
“The Russian permafrost zone is the size of China, Afghanistan and Nigeria combined, and growing parts of it are thawing,” Mundy says.
“It’s a bit like switching off your freezer for a few days. Everything inside will start to rot. That’s basically what’s happening right across Siberia. Microbes feed on this ancient frozen matter from the last Ice Age. They break it down and that process emits huge amounts of carbon dioxide and methane, which has a significant heating effect on the planet.”
But it’s not just climate scientists who visit the slump. Every season, the freshly unfrozen ground brings up mammoth remains. With a crackdown on ivory imports, there’s a ‘tusk rush’, with mammoth tusks selling for $10,000 in the Chinese market.
“There are lots of bones at the megaslump itself,” Mundy says. “I went to an illegal tusk hunting camp, where these guys are trying to put the process into overdrive by blasting the earth with hosepipes.
“I have a photo of me holding a mammoth hip – absolutely enormous. Obviously I couldn’t take that with me but I did take a couple of tiny fragments of bone, which the hunters gave me as a souvenir.”
It’s not all about bones. If you want to resurrect a mammoth, it turns out there are two methods.
“In South Korea,” says Mundy, “a company called Sooam Biotech is leading an international effort to clone a mammoth, basically using the same principle that you see in Jurassic Park – you find some ancient DNA and use it to produce a clone of a long-extinct animal.
“They have found incredibly well-preserved mammoths. Some of them actually have liquid blood when you thaw them out – blood flows from the mammoth – but the DNA has broken down. They haven’t been able to find a way to use it to clone a mammoth, but they believe it’s possible.
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“And then you’ve got the other approach at Harvard. The person who’s driving that is George Church, a very highly respected geneticist.
“You start with the genome of the modern elephant and edit it to make it similar to a mammoth – much bigger, bigger tusks, woollier of course, able to tolerate the extreme cold of Siberia.”
In September this year, Church and his funders announced the launch of Colossal, a $15million project to create a mammoth-like creature (or at least an embryo – Church said getting a calf would be more expensive).
But there is also a less fanciful aim, helping conservation efforts for existing species by, for example, editing the genome of an elephant to make it resistant to certain pathogens.
But it’s resurrecting mammoths that grabs attention. Mundy adds: “[Church] claims he will be able to do it within a decade. And he’s said the first specimen will be sent to Pleistocene Park.”
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Before then, Nikita Zimov is planning the immediate future.
“Our 20sq km is getting full,” he says. “I am starting the process of fencing in 144sq km. After, we will continue introducing more animals – main choice would be bison, horses and maybe more camels. They are just so awesome and I really like them.
“Of course, we want to expand. We want millions of animals to create self-sustaining grazing ecosystems. We want to learn how to create these most effectively and fully understand the impacts they have on the climate, people and other ecosystems.
“Many people assume that ecosystems are controlled by the climate, however most vegetation is controlled by animals.
“If you have big herds of mammoths, there is no way any new tree or moss can establish.”