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Ice age baby mammoth goes on display in Hong Kong

By Ramy Inocencio, CNN
updated 3:27 AM EDT, Fri April 13, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Scientists says Lyuba, which means "love" in Russian, died after 32 days of life
  • The French explorer who announced Lyuba's discovery in 2007, says the specimen is insured for $1 million
  • Extreme cold and the lack of oxygen helped to keep the baby mammoth nearly 100% intact
  • A trio of real skulls from other extinct ice age animals are also displayed in the mall

Hong Kong (CNN) -- From the ice age to the modern age, a 42,000-year-old baby woolly mammoth debuted on the world stage in Hong Kong.

Scientists say Lyuba, which means "love" in Russian, died after 32 days of life, drowning in river mud in present-day Siberia.

And for more than 40 millennia, she laid there encased in her dark, frigid grave.

But Thursday the two-foot tall baby mammoth stood in the hot spotlight at Hong Kong's high-end International Finance Center Mall -- across from Chanel and flanked by an Apple store and a Haagen-Dazs ice cream shop.

Karim Azar, general manager of IFC Mall, explained how ice age relics pair up with modern-day retail.

"We try to be a little bit more than a shopping mall. We want to try and be a cultural center. We're always looking for events that will attract a more cultural kind of angle."

Azar declined to say exactly how much money the mall paid to get Lyuba from her home at Russia's Shemanovsky Museum but he did hint it was in the realm of several million Hong Kong dollars -- 7.8 million Hong Kong dollars equals about $1 million in U.S. currency.

"We don't do it for the monetary gain," Azar said. "We're doing it more for the cultural connection for the Hong Kong people and to get something interesting for the shopping mall."

He says the "headaches" and "red tape" -- including a Hong Kong promise to Russia to return Lyuba -- were worth it for the archaeological significance.

Bernard Buigues, the French explorer who announced Lyuba's discovery in 2007, divulged that Lyuba is insured for U.S. $1.5 million. But the director of the Mammuthus Project added she is priceless.

"When you have access to such a specimen you think it's not possible. You have to pinch yourself and think you are dreaming," he said.

Buigues goes on to say how excited he was to see Lyuba for the first time, and how fortunate a reindeer herder found the mammoth in 2007. The region's extreme cold and the lack of oxygen from Lyuba's thick mud grave had helped to keep her nearly 100% intact.

Aside from missing a few toenails, Lyuba still sports a tuft of hair. Her skin is a near life-like grey. Even her last meal was preserved. That included her mother's milk and bits of her mother's feces -- an aid for digestion.

The baby mammoth is not alone on her field trip to Asia. Also on loan from Russia's Shemanovsky Museum is a three-story, two-ton replica of a woolly mammoth skeleton. A trio of real skulls from other extinct ice age animals round out Lyuba's coterie -- a woolly rhino with a long single horn, a steppe bison and an open-mouthed cave lion baring its sharp predator's teeth.

But Lyuba is the star of this show. To the thousands of expected visitors, she may prove that being 42,000 years old never looked so good.

The exhibit "I Love Lyuba: Baby Mammoth of the Ice Age" extends to May 10, 2012 at Hong Kong's International Finance Center Mall.

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