Wednesday 19 May 2010

Stories of Living Mammoths

There have been many tales about living Mammoths. This is in part due I am sure to the fact that some frozen specimens found look as if they died recently as they are so fresh. With scientists talking about regenerating a mammoth clone ala Jurassic Park, I thought I would dig up dome of the living mammoth stories.In the 1580's the Stroganoff family sent a band of Cossacks to hunt down a group of bandits in Siberia that had been stealing from their mines there. The leader of the expedition, Yermak Timofeyevitch, reported that beyond the Ural Mountains he met a "large, hairy elephant." The natives told him that the Kingdom of Sibir considered the giant animals a part of its wealth; they were valued as food and called "mountains of meat."

In 1873 an article appeared in the Zoologist containing an interview with  Cheriton Batchmatchnik, a Russian convict who escaped from Siberia who claimed to have encountered living Mammoths in a valley of the Aldan mountains.Batchmatchnik had been convicted of smuggling and had been to the mines of Nartchinsk Siberia. He escaped and travelled southwards heading for the Amur river in the hope of reaching China. He ran into a band of Cossacks so he turned north and got to the gorges of the Aldan mountains when  winter arrived. Following  herds of migrating animals he hoped to find shelter. Instead he claimed he found a hidden valley, hemmed in by cliffs on all sides and  he descended to find  the valley to be warm and fertile. There was a lake so he made camp beside it and lit a fire. When night fell some huge animals approached, attracted by the fire. Frightened Batchmatchnik fired his pistol into the dark causing a stampede. Come daylight he discovered large tracks and a well worn track leading to the water. He looked for somewhere safer to shelter and found a cave. He said when he entered the cave there was a full grown mammoth already in residence. He described the animal as 12 feet( 4 metres) tall and 18 feet(6 metres)  long. It was covered in reddish wool and black hair. The curving tusks were about 10 feet( 3 metres) long.In the coming days Batchmatchnik saw about twenty mammoths in the valley. All were adults and he saw no calves. They were peaceable animals who were never aggressive to him and indeed took little notice of him. He also claimed to have seen a dragon like creature that lived in the lake and prayed on animals that came there to drink. He described it as 30 feet (10 metres) long with fangs and covered with scales One morning he saw this "dragon " attack a mammoth. The reptile sized its victim and tried to crush it it in its coils. After a long struggle the mammoth managed to pull itself free and get to safety. Batchmatchnik eventually left the valley and found his way back it civilisation and on his return  the Russian officials seemed to believe his story as they pardoned Batchmatchnik due to his "services to science". 

A Russian hunter claimed to have seen a pair of mammoths in 1918. This story was recorded by M. L. Gallon, the man in charge of the French Consulate in Vladivostok during the year 1920. Gallon claimed that the hunter did not understand what he meant when he referred to the beast as a mammoth, but the hunter simply maintained that it was similar to pictures of elephants he had seen. Although Gallon shared the story with friends when he returned to France later that year, he was not persuaded to publish the account until 1946. The report can be found in Heuvelmans book, about page 550, depending on which edition you read.

"In the second year I was exploring the taiga, I was very much struck to notice the tracks of a huge animal, I say huge tracks, for they were a long way larger than any of those I had often seen of animals I knew well. It was autumn. There had been a few big snowstorms, followed by heavy rain. It wasn't freezing yet, the snow had melted, and there were thick layers of mud in the clearings.. It was in one of these big clearings, partly taken up by a lake, that I was staggered to see huge footprints pressed deep into the mud. It must have been 70 cm across the widest part and 50 cm the other way, so the spoor wasn't round but oval.. There were four tracks, the tracks of four feet, the first two about 4 m from the second pair, which were a little bigger in size. Then the tracks suddenly turned east and went into the forest of middling-sized elms. Were it went I saw a huge heap of dung; I had a good look at it and saw it was made up of vegetable matter.Some 10 feet up, just where the animal had gone into the forest, I saw a sort of row of broken branches, made, I don't doubt, by the monster's enormous head as it forced it's way into the place it had decided to go, regardless of what was in its path. I followed the track for days and days. Sometimes I could see were the animal had stopped at some grassy clearing and then gone on forever eastwards. Then, one day I saw another track, almost exactly the same. It came from the north and crossed the first one. It looked to me as if they had trampled about all over the place for several hundred m as if they had been excited or upset by their meeting. Then the two animals set out marching eastward one following some 20 m behind the other, both tracks mingling and plowing up the earth together. I followed them for days and days thinking that perhaps I should never see them, and also a bit afraid, for indeed I didn't feel I was big enough to face such beasts alone. One afternoon it was clear enough from the tracks that the animals weren't far off. The wind was in my face, which was good for approaching them without them knowing I was there. All of a sudden I saw one of the animals quite clearly, and now I must admit I really was afraid. It had stopped among some young saplings. It was a huge elephant with big white tusks, very curved; it was a dark chestnut colour as far as I could see.. It had fairly long hair on the hindquarters but it seemed much shorter on the front. I must say I had no idea that there were such big elephants. It had huge legs and moved very slowly. I've only seen elephants in pictures, but I must say that even from this distance (we were 3000 m apart) I could never have believed any beast could be so big. The second beast was around, I saw it only a few times among the trees: it seemed to be the same size.  

It sounds like a fantastic tale. Heuvelmans suggested a couple of  reasons why the story sounded so fantastic. a) the hunter got caught up in his tale and added some details which are an exaggeration , but these don't effect the basic veracity of the account b) Gallon inadvertently added details in his recording of the account., especially if it was a story for publication. (Plus the story being retold many years apart would suffer from the Chinese Whispers effect and get distorted over time and of course it may not be true. )

 There was a least one definite hoax which appeared in a 1899 magazine article, published in McClure’s Magazine, in which the author purported to have, during a trip to Alaska, stalked, trapped and killed a living woolly mammoth .In October of 1899 McClure's Magazine ran a story by Henry Tukeman. Called "The Killing of the Mammoth" it began with a letter penned by a recently-deceased man named Horace Conradi which released Tukeman from his promise to keep the slaughter of what may have been the last living mammoth a secret. Some extracts:

Tukeman's story began in the untamed wilds of Alaska in 1890. There was little in the way of creature comforts, but Tukeman decided to stay the winter in Fort Yukon. One day during his stay he was showing some pictures of African animals he had hunted to an Inuit named "Joe" who, when Tukeman turned to a picture of an elephant, became very excited. Joe already knew of such a creature. He had seen one himself, up there in Alaska!Joe's run in with the beast had occurred many years before while he was out hunting with his son. They were looking for beaver and other game when they had come across a huge animal, the Tee-Kai-Koa, bathing in a lake. It was a living woolly mammoth. Joe's son shot it but did not kill the behemoth, and afraid of what such a great beast might do when wounded the two Inuits rushed back home”. 

“When the following summer melted the ice and snow they were on their way.The trip was arduous but Paul and Tukeman soon found signs they were on the right track. They found a cave "paved" with the numerous remains of mammoths. Surely there would living ones nearby, and the bones provided Tukeman the chance to test the strength of the firearms he had brought for the hunt..On August 29th the hunters finally found their prey, yet they did not immediately try to gun it down. Joe had said that the mammoth he say followed the smoke from the gun his son had fired. Perhaps, Tukeman reasoned, mammoths were attracted to the smoke so that they could stomp out any forest fires before they really got going. “

“When the trap was set in the autumn the mammoth was drawn by the smoke and tried to stamp it out. Everything was going as planned. Paul and Tukeman did not waste their chance. They fired, over and over again, until blood oozed out of scores of bullet wounds in the animal's flesh. The Tee-Kai-Koa was dead. Paul and Tukeman skinned their prize and collected its bones, but by that time winter was setting in. They would not be able to leave until the following spring. Tukeman had hoped that the remains would be purchased by a great museum in Europe or America but Conradi, the man who put a gag order on Tukeman until 1899, offered a much larger sum than Tukeman could otherwise hope for. The plan was for Tukeman to stay silent while Conradi presented the mammoth as a discovery he had made himself.

 A  subsequent article meant to set readers straight on mammoths (reprinted in the Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution) a McClure's editor wrote;

Ever since the appearance of that number of the magazine the authorities of the Smithsonian Institution, in which the author [F.A. Lucas] had located the remains of the beast of his fancy, have been beset with visitors to see the stuffed mammoth, and our daily mail, as well as that of the Smithsonian Institution, has been filled with inquiries for more information and for requests to settle wagers as to whether it was a true story or not.

Tukeman's story was a work of fiction.

However articles continued to appear:

Portland Press. “Do Mastodons Exist? – Good evidence that at least one species still lives.” Decatur Daily Republican. Decatur, Illinois. Monday, March 29, 1897. "The Portland (Me.) Press of November 28 publishes a long conversation with Col. C.F. Fowler, late of the Alaskan Fur and Commercial company, in which he gives very clear evidence that in the interior of Alaska many mastodons still survive. He first discovered among some "fossil" ivory collected by the natives two tusks which showed evidence of being recently taken from the animal which carried them. On questioning the native who sold it to him he was surprised to receive a full description of the immense beast which had been killed by the natives, a description fully identifying the animal with the mastodon. Col. Fowler quotes Gov. Swineford, of Alaska, as having also investigated this matter and as being satisfied that on the high plateaus of that country large herds of mastodons still roam unmolested by the natives, who fear them greatly. The Alaska News also admits that the evidence of their existence is too strong to be denied." For other news paper reports including the full text of this  see

 It is not impossible for a Mammoth to have survived but unlikely. The climate has changed and the food sources have changed so it would have to have evolved somewhat. Still the stories are wonderful and fired up the imagination of many who read them. 


Heuvelmans, Bernard (1959). On the Track of Unknown Animals. New York: Hill and Wang.

Newman, Edward. 1873. The Mammoth Still in the Land of the Living. Zoologist (London) Série 2:8:3731-3733.

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