Extinct woolly mammoth up for listing. You read that right

May 31, 2019 | News

By Nathanial Gronewold, E&E News

For the first time ever, governments will consider an endangered species listing for a species that’s already extinct.

The motivation for listing the extinct woolly mammoth is tighter monitoring of the ivory trade and a clampdown on ivory smuggling.

The woolly mammoth thrived for hundreds of thousands of years, its habitat spanning from Europe to Siberia and northeast China and deep into North America as far as the Great Lakes. The subspecies of mammoth, known for its curved tusks and thick mat of fur, disappeared from its continental range by the end of the Pleistocene period into the early Holocene.

Though the animal has been extinct for thousands of years, a team of government conservationists is proposing registering Mammuthus primigenius under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). There is general agreement that listing an extinct species as endangered under CITES Appendix II is technically allowed under convention rules.

The proposal will be considered at the next CITES conference of parties gathering, which has been postponed until later this year or early next year.

Proponents say the listing would mark the first instance of governments granting protected status to an animal that went extinct long ago. Most woolly mammoths died out by the end of the last ice age, though scientists know of a population that survived on Wrangel Island in the Russian Arctic until about 4,000 years ago.

Simon Nemtzov, director of international affairs at the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and author of the unusual proposal, is hopeful that CITES delegates will approve the listing.

“We do feel there is a possibility that it will get passed,” Nemtzov said in an interview. “I don’t want to give it any percentage, but it’s not going to go through easily. If it goes through, it will be good.”

So far Israel’s proposal has no co-sponsors, though Nemtzov said Kenya would have formally co-sponsored had it not missed a technical deadline for doing so. The European Union, United States, Japan and Canada have provided written responses generally indicating they have no opinion or no comment.

‘We’re Looking to Protect Elephants’

Nemtzov explained the objective of the proposal: “The concept is basically we’re looking to protect elephants.” He added, “We’re certainly not looking to protect mammoths. Mammoths are extinct.”

Israel’s conservation office became involved due to its close work with Kenyan wildlife authorities and Israel’s cooperation in East African elephant conservation. Through that work, Nemtzov said, his office has encountered mounting evidence of African elephant ivory being passed off as woolly mammoth ivory in an effort by smugglers to evade authorities.

“Since mammoth ivory trade is almost totally unregulated and undocumented, and because mammoth ivory is not easily distinguished from elephant ivory, there is a tangible risk of illegal international trade in elephant ivory being facilitated by deliberately mislabeling specimens of elephant ivory as mammoth ivory in order to avoid the requirements of the Convention,” Israel’s official CITES proposal argues.

Jim Mead, director of research at the Mammoth Site in South Dakota, agrees it is very difficult to distinguish mammoth ivory from elephant ivory. Full-sized Columbian mammoth ivory tusks are more similar in appearance to a modern bull elephant’s, lacking the distinctive curling of the woolly mammoth’s. However, Columbian and other mammoth ivory hasn’t aged well, he explained, unlike woolly mammoth tusks and tusk pieces.

“Overall, ivory is ivory,” Mead explained in an email. “Most fossil ivory has begun to dry out, changes structurally and chemically so it more often than not breaks into small chunks, making it not really usable for jewelry. However, woolly ivory, because of where the critter lived in the high north latitudes, is often preserved in permafrost, frozen as-is, so it has not really lost or changed its chemistry.”

The opportunity to smuggle endangered African elephant ivory by passing it off as mammoth ivory is too great, said Nemtzov. In smaller pieces, mammoth ivory appears identical to elephant ivory to the naked eye, he stressed.

“What we found is there is definitely evidence that there is trade in mammoth ivory being used as a way to launder elephant ivory,” he said. “We’re concerned that mammoth ivory trade is increasing, and the more mammoth ivory trade out there, the more it creates a possibility that elephant ivory can be laundered. So our goal is to understand what the mammoth ivory trade is, to have it documented and regulated.”

Timing of Vote Unclear

An Appendix II listing would require traders to obtain an export license before removing mammoth ivory from a nation’s borders. By including the woolly mammoth under CITES, governments would be compelled to create a paper trail for the ivory and develop methods to determine whether ivory specimens were derived from extinct mammoths or modern elephants.

Canada already monitors and regulates mammoth ivory trade under rules governing the export of items of cultural significance, yet Canada’s delegation told Nemtzov it has uncovered no evidence of elephant ivory being laundered as mammoth ivory. Still, Ottawa’s response suggested it is open to Israel’s proposal, though it has so far declined to offer a formal opinion or co-sponsor the proposal.

“It would be useful to see evidence in the proposal of risks, or elaboration of likelihood of risks, to wild elephants of mammoth ivory trade,” wrote Basile van Havre of the Canadian Wildlife Service. “In particular, information regarding deliberate laundering of elephant ivory as mammoth would be important.”

The United States responded with a polite but curt refusal to Israel’s invitation to co-sponsorship.

“The United States does not regulate mammoth ivory so we don’t have any information to offer in response,” wrote Rosemarie Gnam, chief of international affairs at the Fish and Wildlife Service. “We are not interested in co-sponsoring the proposal.”

Nemtzov is undeterred. He says there is evidence of laundering and a smuggling threat, adding that nongovernmental groups he works with reported instances of mammoth ivory artisans deliberately turning to elephant ivory instead. His team is prepared to put forth the listing proposal on its own at the next CITES gathering.

CITES COP 18 was supposed to be wrapping up this week, but a series of deadly terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka, the host country, in April forced a postponement.

There is talk of possibly moving the venue to Geneva, Switzerland, though the CITES secretariat remains formally committed to holding the event in Colombo, Sri Lanka. A final decision is expected in early June.

Nemtzov acknowledged that a CITES listing for an already extinct species is unprecedented and a move that may be difficult for other governments to swallow, but he’s confident of the proposal’s merits.

“It’s not so much that we’re banning mammoth ivory,” he said. “The idea here at this stage, at least, is that we want to understand it better.”


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