Welcome to the new Independent website. We hope you enjoy it and we value your feedback. Please contact us here.

Not an easy task, trying to find a sperm in Siberia

An expedition failed to find a mammoth, but dug up lots of cliches, writes Amanda New: Equinox: Resurrecting the Mammoth Channel 4
When Michael Crichton, in Jurassic Park, exploited the delicious possibility that dinosaur DNA might be extractable from blood preserved in mosquitoes frozen in amber, he might not have envisaged how swiftly a science-fiction idea would be transformed into mere science. But this week a camera team followed the journey of a group of Japanese biologists as they attempted to locate and preserve a drop of mammoth DNA, with a view to recreating the hairy monster that once - 10,000 years ago - used to range across most of the northern hemisphere.

It sounds implausible, but Equinox made it seem at least worth a try. Professor Goto - whose English led him to speak delightfully about the "permaforest" in Siberia, the most promising terrain for a mammoth-hunter (if for nothing else) - has already achieved renown by implanting technically dead bovine sperm into a cow and producing a calf; now he wanted to find an equivalent drop of mammoth sperm. In 1901 a Siberian deer-hunter came upon a mammoth which had food in its mouth and an erect penis; this would have been perfect for Professor Goto, and he was hoping for something similar. But as he trawled through ice and mud and mosquitoes the prospect seemed - and stayed - remote.

In the absence of any exciting footage of the discovery - or indeed, of any existing archive material on the mammoths themselves - Equinox fell back on some absurd reconstructions. Explaining that Goto planned to cross mammoth sperm with an Asian elephant, and that this would need to be done for three generations before the creature became 88 per cent mammoth, we saw a series of computerised Dumbos plodding into the limelight, with tusks of ever-increasing curvature. It was as if the programme could not itself take the science seriously; it kept wanting to make a cartoon out of the idea. Who knows how many naturalists and palaeontologists might have been eager to advance their views? Equinox preferred to get its special effects team to wonder what a Mammelant or Elemoth might look like, or visit a mammoth fan called Paul Martin who was convinced that mammoths had been the victims of "animal genocide" by our hunter-gathering ancestors. For a while, it seemed he might suggest that we get our act together and - through the UN, perhaps - issue some sort of a formal "apology" to the mammoth; but in the end he restrained himself.

As the recreation of a mammoth came to seem an implausible idea, a more immediate problem loomed up: the language of the narration stood in urgent need of resuscitation. There were a few pleasantly precise references to the plight, 10,000 years ago, of "megafauna". But otherwise the voice- over teemed with familiar parasites: a steady procession of predictable cliches marched through silly reconstructions in which elephants wearing hairy wigs crashed into the mud beside some prehistoric lake, with some dodgy growling and trumpeting noises going on in the long grass. Right at the start the narrator pledged to "unravel the mysteries" surrounding mammoths, and that was only the beginning. The Siberian landscape was - what else? - "inhospitable"; we found ourselves travelling to the "heart" of Professor Goto's "quest"; most of the physical effort was "sheer"; everyone worked "deep" into the night; the search for a well-reserved beast was - of course - a "hit-and-miss affair"; the deluge that may have wiped out the mammoth was "cataclysmic"; the ironies raised by its disappearance were "supreme". And so on. It wasn't the mammoth that stood in need of a fresh injection of DNA; it was the language. Maybe, some day, a canny Japanese researcher with one eye on the Nobel Prize will devise a way to isolate and preserve the essence of the Oxford English Dictionary, and carefully graft it on to the procedures of documentary television.

There seemed so much that could have been said on so grand a possibility (not least on the ethical implications raised by such a venture). Crosses have been achieved, we were told excitedly, between camels and llamas, but there was no mention of the more glamorous tiglon (half tiger, half lion), which used to be popular in circuses. We were, however, granted one extraordinary glimpse of the scale - sorry, the "sheer" scale - of Siberia. When the aforesaid priapic mammoth was found in 1901, it was cut into 26 pieces, loaded onto sledges, and dragged to St Petersburg. The journey took 10 months, crossing a third of the circumference of the globe. Siberia is big, not to say mammoth. No wonder the Professor struggled to find what he was looking for.