The Pleistocene Park
If a team of naturalists at Cornell University had its way, the Great Plains of North America may once again be home to lions, cheetahs, elephants and other megafauna that roamed the land 13,000 years ago.
Team leader Josh Donlan writes in Nature: “Our vision begins immediately, spans the coming century, and is justified on ecological, evolutionary, economic, aesthetic and ethical grounds. The idea is to actively promote the restoration of large wild vertebrates into North America in preference to the 'pests and weeds' (rats and dandelions) that will otherwise come to dominate the landscape. This 'Pleistocene re-wilding' would be achieved through a series of carefully managed ecosystem manipulations using closely related species as proxies for extinct large vertebrates, and would change the underlying premise of conservation biology from managing extinction to actively restoring natural processes.”
So forget Jurrasic Park; that is so 1993. For 2006: the near semi-ancient past.
And they're not just talking about one or two desolate tropical islands. They have set their eyes on an entire continent.
Their plan is essentially a wildlife conservation program, one that encompasses ultra-complex ecological systems that will take many decades to realize in multiple phases. But it's a peculiar kind of conservation: “Managed elephant populations could similarly benefit ranchers through grassland maintenance [...]. Five species of proboscidians (mammoths, mastadons and gomphotheres) once roamed North America in the Late Pleistocene; today many of the remaining African and Asian elephants are in grave danger. Elephants inhibit woodland regeneration and promote grasslands, as Pleistocene proboscidians probably once did. With appropriate resources, captive US stock and some of the 16,000 domesticated elephants in Asia could be introduced to North America, where they might suppress the woody plants that threaten western grasslands. Fencing, which can be effective in reducing human−elephant conflict in Africa, would be the main economic cost.”
Speaking of economic impact, depressed areas of the United States may be receptive to an “ecological history park,” as it might inject some ecotourism dollars to the local economy: “[H]umans have emotional relationships with large vertebrates that reflect our own Pleistocene heritage. More than 1.5 million people annually visit San Diego's Wild Animal Park to catch a glimpse of large mammals — more than the number of visitors to most US National Parks.”
But nearby urban areas, so close to so many disease vectors, may be susceptible to deadly outbreaks, possibly to ones more lethal and contagious than AIDS and Ebola.
Still, it's certainly fascinating to think that an hour or two car drive out of Pruned HQ, somewhere near the bland-sounding town of Rockford or Rantoul, you could be snapping away at a herd of elephants or a den of lions.
In the Pleistocene Park.