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The Pleistocene Park
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.

 Pleistocene re-wilding in North America

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.

  • Anonymous
  • December 13, 2005 at 4:25:00 AM CST
  • So how is this different from the introduction of starlings to North America or any of the other attempts to populate an environment that suits humans rather than letting nature takes its course? How is it different from any other attempt to create a romanticised past, or recreate a past that vanished of its own accord? Could we have the nomadic and low-tech humans in there too?

    I appreciate Donlan's idea in a proof-of-concept sort of way, but dislike what happens when well-intentioned efforts to manipulate biomes go astray.

  • Alexander Trevi
  • December 13, 2005 at 12:39:00 PM CST
  • There is no difference! It's of the same species as prairie restoration (or as one friend calls it, prairie redemption), the National Park system, farms, Central Park, and Sea World. It's the Serengeti fenced-in to protect Oklahomans from being mulled by bears. And its ancestry can be traced back to the Garden of Eden. It's a romanticised past alright, but it's par for the course.

    I wouldn't be surprised to see a herd of elephants being taught a migration route by a well intentioned documentarians via land rovers. Or nomadic and low-tech humans, i.e. unemployed actors and landscape architects, as tour guides or attractions.

    So why is it then included in The New York Times Magazine Year of Ideas issue? All I can think of is the scale and scope of the project. That's all.

    For more on simulated worlds, check out Episode 38 of This American Life (11 October 1996). Coming soon on Pruned.

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