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They have been extinct for thousands of years, capturing the popular imagination with their exotic woolly coats and enormous tusks.
Now, the mammoth could expectedly prove the key to protecting modern-day elephants from beyond the grave, as scientists explore whether they could be the first extinct species to be placed on the endangered list.
A Radio 4 programme, part of a landmark new collaboration with the Natural History Museum, is to investigate how mammoth ivory – dug up in Siberia to be sold – is fuelling the illegal trade today, with tons of tusks being deliberately excavated each year.
Woolly mammoths are thought to have died out around 10,000 years ago (Alamy)
Making the mammoth the first extinct species to be placed on the formal endangered list, one expert at the museum will suggest, could help end the illegal international trading of ivory.
The issue is just one to be explored in a major new series from BBC Radio 4, as it announces a 25-programme series investigating the animal kingdom’s most beloved creatures.
Entitled Natural Histories, it is the first formal collaboration of its size with the NHM and is aimed at exploring “the profound impact that nature has had on culture and society over the course of human history”.
The radio station has previously embarked on a similarly-ambitious series with the British Museum, with Neil MacGregor’s 100 objects.
Now, it will turn to the natural world for inspiration, from how the reputation of the whale was saved, the changing fortunes of the snake, and how Harry Potter gave the nightshade a new lease of life.
It will be accompanied by a ten-part series entitled Natural History Heroes, which will showcase the important pioneers who helped the human race fall in love with the animal kingdom.
One programme will explore how the long-dead mammoth is inadvertently contributing to the illegal ivory trade, after the discovery of copious skeletons in Siberia.
Professor Adrian Lister, the NHM’s research leader in palaeontology who contributed to the show, said experts could consider placing mammoth tusks on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) list of banned items.
A Thai customs official displays seized elephant tusks smuggled into Thailand from Kenya (Sakchai Lalit/AP)
Making the link between the extinct mammoth and the living elephant, he said: “You can see a very stark message that once a thing has gone, it’s gone.”
The tusks, he said, have become “very big business”, with a recent study showing 40 per cent of the ivory on sale in China now comes from mammoths.
“You may have heard about the frozen mammoth carcasses that occasionally get dug up in Siberia,” he said. “They usually make the news. But all the time, people are digging up what you might call less spectacular remains.
“Nowadays there are a number of businesses which go about deliberately and legally to search for and dig up these tusks.”
Experts are now in discussions over whether the presence of mammoth ivory helped the living elephant or hindered it, fuelling interest in the industry.
“I think a total ban on all ivory, living and fossil, is probably the best means to help the living elephant and kill off the demand for ivory altogether,” said Professor Lister.
“One mechanism to ban all ivory would be to make the mammoth the very first extinct species to be listed under CITES; in other words, it would become illegal to trade its products. It’s just a suggestion, but it would be interesting to see whether it made any impact.”
The programme will also look at cave paintings of mammoths, and how the ivory was used by Stone Age man.
The remaining 24 programmse will also see investigations into snakes – feared by many in the West but a symbol of fertility in Hopi culture, how the whale changed from merely a beast to be hunted in the human imagination, and how Harry Potter added to the myths about deadly nightshade, with its screaming mandrake plants.
The series will also aim to show how the arts have helped cement the reputation of animals and plantlife, from the story of Tarzan to the controversial taxonomic work of Damien Hirst.
Gwyneth Williams, controller of Radio 4 said: “Radio 4 has a long history of bringing natural history to life for listeners, but this is the first time we have embarked on a project of this scale and variety, taking in documentary, biography and fiction.”
Sir Michael Dixon, director of the Natural History Museum, added it was a “great pleasure” to be able to share the expertise of his staff with the world.
Natural Histories will begin on Radio 4 on June 2 at 11am, with 25 weeks of half-hour-long programme. Natural History Heroes and four original short stories from authors based on the project will follow later in the year.