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Pleistocene Rewilding: Is it really a good idea?

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Recently a concept known as pleistocene rewilding has arisen within the conservation community. This idea is the cause of great controversy as it suggests we should introduce descendants of extinct pleistocene megafauna to ecosystems where their ancestors once roamed. This would mean releasing species such as lions (Panthera leo), tigers (Panthera tigris), and elephants (Loxodonta africana) into the Great Plains region of North America or bringing a species of rhino into Europe.

While restoring species to an ecosystem in which they, or at least their ancestors, evolved may seem like a good idea at first we must take a closer look at the implications of such an action. These species have been absent from these habitats for thousands of years, most since the end of the last ice age. These systems have continued to evolve without these species. In many places new species have arisen to fill the ecological void left by the extinction of these ancient species. Sure, there are examples of niches which have not been filled (for instance, no predator other than man has found a way to hunt the American pronghorn since the extinction of the American cheetah), but this does not mean we should intervene. More often than not introductions of species do not end well. I of course must cite the example of introduced species such as pythons and kudzu.

Some argue that it was the actions of ancient humans rather than natural selection which pushed these species into extinction. Whether this is true or not it does not justify the introduction of their modern descendants into ecosystems which have adapted to the lack of these pleistocene megafauna. Currently we have greater conservation issues at hand such as deforestation, poaching of rhinos, declining grassland birds, and deterioration of reefs to worry about something frivolous like pleistocene rewilding.

Additional readings:

Bringing wild rhinos into Europe proposal “red herring and won’t fly” – News – News – Voice of Russia UK, Voice of Russia – UK Edition.

Pleistocene Rewilding– in North America

Pleistocene Rewilding, Frankenstein Ecosystems, and an Alternative Conservation Agenda – Oliveira-Santos – 2010 – Conservation Biology – Wiley Online Library.

JSTOR: The American Naturalist, Vol. 168, No. 5 November 2006, pp. 660-681.

Rants from the Hill: Pleistocene rewilding — High Country News.

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