Pleistocene Rewilding: Conservation Benefit or Folly?

One day, elephants and lions may once again roam the great plains…of Iowa? That’s right, Pleistocene rewilding proposes the reintroduction of large mammals as a way of ensuring natural ecosystem controls. The theory arose when archaeologist Paul S. Martin compared the extant large mammals of Asia and Africa, with the fossil evidence from North America.  Scientists found that North America once had the same proportions of large mammals as Africa and Asia.  However many of these animals went extinct during the Late Pleistocene 50,000 – 10,000 years ago. Scientists have proposed that these species were decimated by skilled big game hunters that populated the continent about 13,000 years ago. 

These extinctions are problematic for ecosystems because many of these large mammals were keystone species. Keystone species have a transformative effect on the ecosystem that benefits many other species.  For example, Elephants effectively, “create” savanna by uprooting trees.  This leads to increased grazing land for animals like gazelles and their predators.  Conservation biologists argue that the reintroduction of keystone species will create healthier ecosystems for all species.  Plus, many of these large species, such as the, “Przewalski’s Horse”, are facing extinctions in their natural habitats.  Pleistocene rewilding would ensure healthy genetic stocks of these species into the future. 

Rewilding of large mammals has already been implemented in a number of different countries.  Norway reintroduced the musk ox in 1932, after the population was destroyed by over hunting.  Other parts of Scandinavia have progressed even further towards the goal of reintroducing large grazers.  In Oostvaardersplassen, a nature reserve in the Netherlands, hundreds of Heck cattle have been reintroduced to the wild.  Heck cattle were bred to physically resemble the Auroch that went extinct from Europe in the 17th century, due to over hunting.  Rewilding also includes the reintroduction of large predators such as lions.  However, this has not been attempted yet due to safety and livestock predation concerns.  However, Rewilding does not only involve the reintroduction of large mammals.  It also involves increased freedom of movement of existing species.  Examples of this are highway overpasses in Canada that allow for animals to move more easily from territory to territory.

The best example of a Pleistocene rewilding project is the, “Pleistocene Park” created in Siberia in 1988 by Russian scientist Sergei Zimov.  The park aims to create the Siberian grassland ecosystem that existed during the Pleistocene.  Genetic scientists in Japan have recently begun a project to genetically reproduce a mammoth using dna and an elephant mother.  Zimov has proposed that the mammoth would be the primary keystone species in the ecosystem.  He has proposed reintroducing the bred mammoth to Siberia if the project is successfully completed.  

Pleistocene rewilding does have it’s detractors in the scientific community.  Many claim that ecosystems have evolved without these megafauna, and that Pleistocene rewilding may distrupt those ecosystems.  Overall the reintroduction of many of these species will lead to increased genetic diversity and the survival of these rare species into the future.  If you would like to learn more about efforts towards Pleistocene rewilding and ways to get involves, please visit the Rewilding


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