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Lions and Tigers and Bears in Kansas? Um, Why?


Forget the African safari. A group of scientists is calling for releasing large vertebrates on the North American plains to replace the saber-toothed tiger, mammoth and a dozen other megafauna that used to roam the continent.

Of course, those animals went extinct about 13,000 years ago. Instead of attempting to realize John Hammond-like efforts (remember the misguided entrepreneur in Jurassic Park who cloned dinosaurs to populate the theme park?), the authors recommend using elephants, lions, camels, vultures, falcons, tortoises, wild horses, and cheetahs as proxies for the extinct animals.

This isn’t the first time the 12 ecologists and conservationists have touted their idea of “Pleistocene rewilding” (last year they published a short article in Nature), but they flush out the idea in their paper in the November issue of The American Naturalist. The animals will draw tourists—and money—but also might fill a gaping hole in our knowledge of the ecological and evolutionary consequences of the creatures’ extinction, say the authors.

Any thoughtful natural historian should wonder about how the loss of these large vertebrates subsequently influenced biodiversity and ecosystem function. If these influences were important, would an attempt to partially restore large carnivores and megaherbivores have positive or negative consequences for biodiversity and human welfare? Heretofore, these important questions have received little serious consideration.

There are substantial obstacles, not to mention huge potential risks, to Pleistocene rewilding. Nevertheless: 

…we can no longer accept a hands-off approach to wilderness preservation as realistic, defensible, or costfree. It is time to not only save wild places but rewild and reinvigorate them.

That would include first releasing tortoises and horses on private land, and ultimately creating a massive ecological history park. Sounds like a nice place to visit, but might the NIMBY (handy acronym for “not in my back yard”) factor keep it from being a reality?