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Discovery special a mammoth undertaking

Saturday, March 11, 2000

By John Hayes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

He was hungry. Scraping snow and ice from the tundra was difficult and time consuming, but in his 47 years he had learned that green aquatic plant life bloomed just under the surface of the glacial spring. Aware of the risks of falling in, the 11-foot mammoth dipped his woolly trunk and tugged.

The banks of the pool were slippery or maybe his own weight forced him too deep into the mire. Down, down until even his massive trunk couldn't reach a breath of air. And there he remained. Silent. Alone.


"Raising the Mammoth"

When: 8 p.m. March 12 on Discovery Channel.

Narrator: Jeff Bridges


Twenty thousand, three hundred and eighty years later, the calm was broken by the roar of a helicopter and the pounding of pneumatic jackhammers. The woolly mammoth who died alone in the Pleistocene era was about to become a 21st century TV star.

If you have cable you've probably been bombarded for months with the Discovery Channel's "mammoth" promotional campaign sent out over its own signal and a number of channels. Discovery sank its money and prestige into a difficult expedition to film the excavation of a fully intact woolly mammoth from 15 feet below the rock-hard Siberian permafrost 477 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

The payoff comes tonight when Discovery televises "Raising the Mammoth," a two-hour "watch with the world" event aired simultaneously in 146 countries and 23 languages.

There's no denying that the expedition, spearheaded by French explorer Bernard Buigues, was an exciting adventure fraught with danger and a thousand pitfalls, natural and manmade, which constantly threatened the mission's success and the men's survival. The ingenuity and doggedness of the explorers is testament to at least one reason why our species survived the last ice age and the mammoth's didn't, and because of that this intimate record of their journey of discovery is worth seeing.

But Discovery's text, narrated in English-speaking markets by Jeff Bridges, and Novi Production's cinematography fail to live up to the expectations generated by the promotional campaign. The science that leads geologists and paleontologists to reach surprisingly detailed conclusions about the extinct animal's life and manner of death is sometimes presented haphazardly and illogically. Possibly due to the extreme conditions, there's little of the spectacular, panoramic photography viewers may have come to expect. And computer animation sequences of a menacing mammoth are woven in and out of the story in a transparent attempt to inject life into the often dry and scholarly production, despite the fascinating nature of the actual expedition.

Surprisingly, the grand philosophical question at the core of the show is blurted out with no critical discussion - should scientists attempt to clone the mammoth or artificially inseminate a modern elephant with viable sperm, should some exist? The answer is predetermined as Buigues and his team discuss the possibility of repopulating the planet with an extinct species as casually as they might discuss planting corn.

Although University of Arizona professor Larry Agenbroad participated in the expedition, the filmmakers interview him in the relatively comfortable South Dakota dig site where he has been researching mammoth finds since 1974.

In a recent telephone interview he tried to put the science of the expedition into perspective.

"Actually this is going to sound odd at first but it's not that this particular animal is so important," he said. "What has been lost to most of the media is that for the first time ever we have successfully removed an extinct animal from the permafrost and put it away where it can be examined at leisure."

Instead of thawing the carcass on site with warm water, Buigues' team hacked a 23-ton cube of tundra containing the frozen beast and airlifted it 200 miles south to a Khatanga ice cave carved by Joe Stalin's political slaves. There it will remain in a deep freeze while scientists of many disciplines search for preserved DNA in the mammoth, the contents of its stomach, the pollen on its wool and the sediment surrounding it.

"You could smell the animal, the vegetation and the earth," said Agenbroad. "The tusks had been cut off [by the nomadic Dolgan people who discovered it] and they lay nearby. Every time I saw them I had the melancholy feeling that the tusks wanted to be with their mammoth about 50 feet away."

Adding to the difficulty of the expedition was Buigues' insistence that the cultural traditions of the Dolgans be honored. In the show's most memorable scene, the tusks have been reattached to the permafrost block to "empower the mammoth on its flight," and the giant ice cube with tusks is lifted and helicoptered over the horizon.

Agenbroad dismisses notions that the scientists are trying to build a Pleistocene version of "Jurassic Park."

"Personally, I don't trust the government or a commercial genetic laboratory," he said. "[The cloning or insemination] has to be supervised with the cooperation of those with other viewpoints. But first we have to just see if there is any viable DNA. I know people have seen 'Jurassic Park,' but hey, get real. This is a baby elephant."

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