Beasts of both worlds: Scientists propose 'rewilding'
USA TODAY | August 18, 2005
By Elizabeth Weise
What North America needs is a few good saber-toothed tigers and a couple of mastodons and mammoths — like in the good (very) old days.
An artist's conception of animals on America's Great Plains.
But with those animals extinct, conservation biologists write in the journal Nature Thursday, elephants, lions and camels will do. The idea is to restore the environmental balance the continent lost when people arrived from Eurasia 13,000 years ago and slaughtered the giant animals in about 400 years.
Today, Africa's large mammals are dying while the human population of the Great Plains is declining, they write. So why not restock with the cousins many-times removed of the very same animals our ancestors hunted into extinction so long ago?
They call it "Pleistocene rewilding," from the geological era that ended 10,000 years ago. Conservationists believe it can reinvigorate the nation's environmental and economic health.
This idea took seed 20 years ago with biogeographer Paul Martin of the University of Arizona. Conservationists often talk about taking the United States back to where it was when Columbus arrived in 1492. But Martin realized the real benchmark is 13,000 years ago.
The continent teemed with mastodons, mammoths, saber-toothed tigers, five species of horses and 13 species of camels. Last year, 14 ecologists and conservation biologists met on media mogul Ted Turner's Ladder Ranch in New Mexico to hash out how reintroducing proxy species might play out.
Their resulting commentary in the journal suggests a series of controlled experiments on fenced private land as already has been done with condors and bison. Next might come giant tortoises, then horses, camels and elephants. And, much later, cheetahs and lions. "We're not advocating backing up a van of cheetahs and letting them go near Tucson," says Josh Donlan of Cornell University.
Even naysayers acknowledge it's one of the biggest ideas to hit conservation biology in decades.
"Hats off to them for being provocative," says M. Sanjayan of the Nature Conservancy. "But if you want to think big, why not think big in Africa?"