They were massive, prehistoric, legendary creatures able to endure harsh sub-zero climates, but which vanished from the face of the Earth thousands of years ago.
Now scientists based at Edinburgh Zoo have discovered DNA of the extinct woolly mammoths in ivory trinkets on sale in Cambodia, alongside items made from the ivory of endangered Asian and vulnerable African elephants.
The surprise finding came as scientists, pioneering the use of genetic data, examined ivory souvenirs at the wildlife conservation charity’s WildGenes laboratory based at the zoo.
The lab is the only zoo-based animal genetics lab in the UK.
The work is aimed at fighting the illegal trade in ivory, which sees around 30,000 elephants killed every year for their tusks.
WildGenes programme manager Dr Alex Ball said: “Understanding where the ivory is coming from is vital for enforcement agencies looking to block illegal trade routes.
“If we can use genetics to identify where elephants are being killed for their ivory, measures can be taken to protect those most at risk of persecution. DNA from ivory samples can reveal important information about the individual that grew the tusk, including where its closest relatives live. We are working with partners in Cambodia to support and train staff, which will enable them to carry out more of this work, which is vital to conservation efforts.”
Describing finding the woolly mammoth DNA, Dr Ball said: “To our surprise, within a tropical country like Cambodia, we found mammoth samples within the ivory trinkets that are being sold. So this has basically come from the Arctic tundra, dug out the ground. And the shop owners are calling it elephant ivory, but we’ve found out it is actually mammoth.
“It is very hard to say what the implications of this finding are for existing elephant populations. However, we plan to continue our research and will use genetics to work out where it has come from.”
The Cambodian ivory project, a partnership between the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, Fauna and Flora International, the Royal University of Phnom Penh and the Royal Government of Cambodia, is funded by an Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund grant from the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
This has involved developing a conservation genetics laboratory in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, to help monitor dwindling elephant populations and determine the origin of ivory finding its way to the marketplace.
In 2015 and 2016, Fauna and Flora International carried out market surveys investigating the level of ivory trade and consumer base in three major Cambodian cities – Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihannoukville. The data suggests the country’s domestic ivory market may be growing.
Woolly mammoths roamed across Europe, Asia Africa and North America. They are thought to have vanished due to climate change and hunting.
The creatures have long captured the public imagination. A University team is working on a “de-extinction” programme producing a hybrid elephant-mammoth through genetic engineering, whereby its traits would be merged with an Asian elephant.