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December 13, 2005

Nicholas Kristof: Where Deer and Lions Play.

Nicholas Kristof catches up (finally!) with the re-wilding of America story. N America used to have a number of predators that were wiped out by the first human arrivals, so why not repopulate with the African close cousins?

Nice to see him getting there although someone (it would be rude of me to say who, coff, coff) did write about it back on August 19th.

That someone also made the point that it is only an industrialized nation that has sufficient land to do something like this.


The pronghorn antelope is North America's speediest animal, capable of running 60 miles per hour -- but why? Its predators don't run nearly that fast, so why would the pronghorn evolve such a capability?

The answer is probably the cheetah. We think of cheetahs as African, but America had its own cheetahs, along with elephants, lions, camels and wild horses. Since cheetahs can run 60 or 70 m.p.h. for short bursts, and enjoy antelope steak, the pronghorns adapted.

Now comes one of the craziest -- and appealing -- ideas in the biological world: reintroducing species to the Americas. Eventually, this could allow Americans to go on camera safaris in this country and see scenes that humans haven't witnessed on this continent since about 11,000 B.C.

The genesis for this idea is the growing realization that Native Americans were not the fine ecological stewards we imagine. In the Americas, hunters began using effective spears about 13,000 years ago, and in only about four centuries nearly three-quarters of the large animal species had disappeared. Something like that also happened in Australia.

So today we think of lions as African, but similar lions were once integral to the ecosystem of North America. So were five species of elephant-like creatures, along with ancient wild horses and the camelops -- a Bactrian camel with an American accent.

So in a commentary in Nature in August, a handful of scientists led by Josh Donlan of Cornell University suggested a ''Pleistocene re-wilding'' -- the introduction of species from elsewhere that would closely resemble those in the ecosystem of the Pleistocene era, from about 1.65 million years ago until about 10,000 years ago.

The proposal provoked gasps of horror, some from Americans who did not wish to look out their back window and see a cheetah devour a camel -- or, worse, their child. There's been such a furor about reintroducing wolves in Yellowstone that I doubt this column will go over well with Montana and Wyoming ranchers.

But the idea is not for a Jurassic Park. Things would start slowly with less threatening creatures like the Bolson tortoise, which can weigh 100 pounds. It is now found only in Mexico but was once common in the U.S.

The next step would be to find a 200,000-acre ranch in the Southwest that saw an economic opportunity in working with scientists to recreate a Pleistocene ecosystem and then charging tourists to come and gawk. And, yes, such a game reserve would have a strong perimeter fence.

Something similar is being tried in Siberia. As the journal Science recounted in May, biologists in the Russian region of Yakutia are trying to create a Pleistocene Park by reintroducing species similar to the ones that humans killed off there long ago.

''Right now when people think of conservation, 1492 is the de facto benchmark,'' Mr. Donlan said. But he noted that if we really wanted to recover part of the wilderness that existed before humans helped muck up the ecosystem, we might want to go back to what is a heartbeat away in cosmic time: say, 13,000 years ago.

Whether here or in Russia, one aim is to restore checks and balances. American grasslands suffer from an encroachment of woody shrubs, for example, perhaps because elephants no longer keep them at bay. Another goal is to save endangered species (as a result, the game reserves would be populated by cheetahs already in this country, not by newly captured ones).

To me, as an avid backpacker, another advantage is that this re-wilding might entice Americans away from their televisions and connect them with nature. This might also provide a new economic base -- safari tourism -- for sparsely populated areas of the Great Plains. More than 1.5 million people a year visit Wild Animal Park in San Diego, and even more might visit a Pleistocene reserve on, say, private land in North Dakota.

There are a million reasons why none of this may be feasible, and it's always ecologically dangerous to tinker with nature. But some of the biggest human tinkering came when we helped to exterminate large animals 13 millenniums ago, and it's reasonable to explore whether to bring some of their relatives back.

This proposal could also be a boon for environmentalism. At a time when environmentalism defines itself largely by what it is against, re-wilding provides a positive vision. What could be bolder than giving our children the first glimpse in 13,000 years of an America as it was before humans introduced high technology like spears

December 13, 2005 in Environmentalism | Permalink


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That someone also made the point that it is only an industrialized nation that has sufficient land to do something like this.

That can't be right can it? The Serengeti could be cultivated but it isn't. And they do reintroduce animals there quite a lot; there are a lot of breeding programs. Lots of Asian and Latin American countries which I would not call "industrialised" also have national parks in forests that lots of local people want to cut down for timber.

Posted by: dsquared | Dec 13, 2005 3:11:40 PM

That can't be right can it? The Serengeti could be cultivated but it isn't.>>

could be there are diseases endemic in that area which prevent men and their animals from surviving..tsetse anyone??

Posted by: embutler | Dec 13, 2005 4:12:14 PM

The wise thing would be to start off on an island, to restrict the area affected if things go wrong. I recommend Long Island; then the Wall St types could learn to deal with real jackals, hyenas etc.

Posted by: dearieme | Dec 14, 2005 1:31:53 AM

Does Mr du Toit approve? As the one of the genuine African-Americans in Texas perhaps we should seek his counsel.

Personally the thought of going to Disney World in the morning and big game hunting in the afternoon has some attractions. However (Warning - altrusim alert) the history of introducing non-native species to alien environments is not good.

The Remittance Man

Posted by: The Remittance Man | Dec 14, 2005 7:01:13 AM