Friday, August 19, 2005

Cowboys and Elephants

Brian

Somebody's been letting Guns, Germs, and Steel go to his head:
Scientists are proposing reintroducing large mammals such as elephants, lions, cheetahs and wild horses to North America to replace populations lost 13,000 years ago.

The scientists say that not only could large tracts of North America act as breeding sanctuaries for species of large wild animals under threat in Africa and Asia, but that such ecological history parks could be major tourist attractions.
. . . .
[The team, writing in the journal Nature,] said large mammals were common across all continents until the Late Pleistocene wipeout that hit North America hardest and handed the world to smaller species. The largest mammals in the United States today are bison.


Link (via Fortean Times). The Economist covers the arguments against the proposal, in case you hadn't already thought up one for yourself:

Many mainstream conservationists are naturally (in more than one sense of that word) suspicious. Chris Haney, a conservation biologist at Defenders of Wildlife, a voluntary conservation group, fears the effort might detract from what he describes as “more realistic” goals, such as the reintroduction of wolves, bison, grizzly bears and North American elk (not to be confused with the European sort, known to Americans as moose). These reintroductions have faced bitter opposition from some ranchers, farmers and politicians. In Yellowstone National Park, a wolf-reintroduction programme begun in 1995 was ultimately successful, but not before a number of lawsuits were heard, thousands of dollars paid to ranchers for lost livestock, and two of the wolves illegally shot. If programmes like this were seen not merely in isolation, but as the first steps in a grand plan to reintroduce lions and cheetahs, they would be even harder to implement.

Eric Dinerstein, chief scientist at the World Wildlife Fund US, another conservation charity, has a related objection. He suggests Mr Donlan's idea might be damaging not only to efforts to conserve North American species, but also to the very Old World species it is intended to save. He thinks Mr Donlan is too pessimistic about the chances of preserving endangered animals in their African and Asian homes. Rather than spending money to establish those species in North America, Dr Dinerstein would prefer to see it spent conserving them where they live now.


Link. But then there's C. Josh Donlan making the "for" case again, this time in Slate:

Lions would be the ultimate in rewilding for North America. The predators likely once played an important ecological role here, as they do in the Serengeti. American lion populations would augment the endangered groups in Asia and Africa. And the tourism possibilities are evident to any safari lover. Rewilding could yield national ecological history parks, covering the parts of the Great Plains where the human population is shrinking and jobs are few. As in Africa, perimeter fencing would limit the movements of the big mammals, ensuring that they won't eat anyone's sheep or cows. Surrounding towns would benefit from the increased tourism, much as the towns surrounding parks like Yellowstone do. One day, a system of reserves across the continents of Africa, Eurasia, and the Americas could use the fossil record as a guide to restoration and offer the best hope for long-term survival of the large mammals by allowing them to adapt, in evolutionary terms, to climate change, emerging infectious diseases, and human impact.

Sure, the costs and risks of bringing back the megafauna are significant—they include angry ranchers, scared passersby, and unanticipated effects on other plants and animals. But without rewilding, we settle forever for an American wilderness that is diminished compared with just 100 centuries ago. And in the event of global climate change that affects Africa in particular, or economic and political strife there, we risk the extinction of the world's remaining bolson tortoises, camels, elephants, cheetahs, and lions. Safari trip to Texas, anyone?


Link. As cool as it would be to have, say, giraffes and zebra running around Montana, I'm a bit dismayed by Mr. Handey's proposal of introducing elephants with sharks on their backs. And lions? Just what I need: more large cats springing out at me from the dark.

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