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Tiny Elephants

Written by Gregory Benford


As we slammed into the Arctic whitecaps, spraying cold salt water into our Zodiac, Sven shouted, "There's the island. I'll run up the white flag."

We needed it, apparently. Sven said the locals shot at the first three Zodiacs. I wondered how they afforded guns and ammo, and Sven said they had a stockpile from the Soviet days.

The fourth attempt stood offshore and offered some goods in return—salt pork, fancy red parkas, DVDs. The locals had generators for electricity, but not much else. That deal got the Zodiac ashore and they looked around the little stone-cottage village. It was amazing that anybody lived here at all, within 15 degrees of the pole, utterly isolated. The Zodiac crew took a quick survey—123 people, some dogs, plenty of softening tundra. Plus a bubbling pond they saw at a distance. That's what had primed my interest. I had to beg Operations for an extra trip to visit this forlorn island.

Figures waved on the rocky shore. Sven's white flag got us in. The village was a ramshackle affair of leftover sheet metal, concrete blocks, gray roofing and muddy streets. A generator chugged out power on a stone platform and an outhouse tainted the air.

They wore fur parkas and quite deftly stripped us of our goods for "favors"—more canned food, cheap cotton dresses for the ladies, Russian paperbacks, fuel oil. Then the hard bargaining got started, for the best goodies—fruit; high-calorie snacks; seeds for mid-winter green sprouts; vitamin supplements; good knives; toothpaste.

They beamed at us. This was the right moment. Carefully I asked to see the "bubbly" in my wobbly Russian.

They led me across two kilometers of squishy tundra, to a big pond with bubbles breaking around its edge. I knelt, put a meter on it, took the chem reading. "Yep, methane," I told Sven. "Plenty."

He knelt and flicked his lighter. Orange flames danced above the brackish water. "Right." Plenty more bubbles popped out on the pond.

We were monitoring the accelerating methane emissions throughout the Arctic tundra. Islands like this, far above the Siberian shore, were a missing part of the map, and we needed data points. This was a clear sign of a fast emission rate. I turned to go—and saw them.

The natives had them in a corral. They were gray-black and shaggy, with snaky trunks. I spotted them as dwarf elephants, though I'm not a biologist. I was just a geology lab tech—if it's got a pulse, it's not my field. They were darker than the Asian elephants I'd seen, which made sense—darker absorbs more sunlight.

There was a partially buried barn for them, like a longhouse mound. That made sense. Shelter would be the only thing the locals could provide that the tiny elephants couldn't find, far more efficiently, for themselves. So here, with no machinery, the people used shelter as a draw to keep them in the area. Elephants can do a lot of brute work better than a tractor.

Intrigued, I slogged through the soft tundra to the stone corral fence. The tiny elephants could probably push through the wall. I guessed that the natives must have trained them not to, maybe by feeding them dwarf willow and other treats, as rewards for staying put.

They came over to the wall, snouts up, mouths wide, as if expecting to be fed. They were less than two meters tall, plenty smaller than any elephant you see in zoos, and smelled like last week's kitchen trash. I did know that Asian elephants range from over two meters to four meters, so these were in the low range of normal. One grunted and pushed past the others, right up to the stone rim. That's when I got my surprise.

Big tusks! The shaggy coat hid the tusks when they were eating with heads down. But I had no time to think about it. Sven called to me and somebody grabbed my shoulder, pushed, and I turned. The guy had lost his snaggle-toothed smile, from when I gave him a six pack of beer back at the Zodiac. He barked at me, his sharp black eyes free of the phony friendship of an hour before.

Sven said, "He won't trade these. Says they're part of his family tradition."

"I didn't say I wanted them, did I?"

Sven whispered, "I think he wants to make a deal."

Then I saw that these guys were born traders. But this one had misread his customers. I really didn't want one. But curiosity got the better of me. I said, "How long have they had them?" to cover my confusion.

"He says, came down through his tribe. Give wool, milk. Meat too when they die, if you let them get through a mourning period. Plus they can help move big things. Even more, they guard this territory against hunting polar bears. That's how the villagers have held out on this godforsaken island."

That made sense. With the tundra melting, polar bears were moving onto firmer ground, and always hungry. I shook my head. "Tell him I want to take pictures, that's all."

More fast Russian, hand gestures, rolled eyes. "He wants pay for pictures."

I offered rubles. He wanted goods in hand, not paper tokens of unspendable money. He gave me a stubborn, shrewd look. He had drunk our beer and flooded my face with a breath like musk ox and rotten dump truck. But we had nothing more in the Zodiac. We siphoned out some of our petrol but that wasn't a lot.

So I gave him my big geologist watch. Cost me 400 euros in Sweden, but it got me twenty-six good digital photos.

There were twenty-three in the herd and I took close-up shots of them. Did they smell! The tusks were long, dirty ivory curving to sharp points. Wicked dangerous, yes. I knew vaguely that Asian elephants still inhabit the foothills of the Himalayas. Some, seeking food and solitude, roamed north into lower Siberia. Not surprising, then, that if some got trapped here on an island, with less territory and food, the surviving generations would be smaller. Biologists make a big point of the obvious—that small islands generate smaller animals. So it seemed reasonable to me. A minor discovery, but mine.

I had no idea, of course. The bio guys at Operations went wild. They did complicated mass and size calculations, enlarged my photos. I had picked up some of their fragrant hair, a Coke can full of dung, and even a crusty scab patch that fell off one of their rumps. Hey, I know how to do basic field work, even out of my field.

From that scab the bio guys traced back the genetics in the tiny elephants. That confirmed what they'd guessed and I hadn't. So they share this prize.

The locals did pretty well, too. They caught on quickly that they had the world's only stock of a legendary creature. I expect they will live well on the proceeds, especially as they have kept control of the herd. You have to pay a hefty fee to just set foot on their island now, I hear.

The Nobel committee says I should give a fancy lecture, but I'm just going to do this short acceptance speech. So I'm sticking to a few words about how I found this, and of course, thanks.

I think this is a valuable lesson for guys like me, non-academics who live and work in the real world, so I'm telling it the way it was. There are still things to be discovered out there!

You, too, could do as I did—stay alert, take samples, maybe even discover something as weirdly wonderful and profound as the last surviving colony of pygmy mammoths.

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