REWILDING NORTH AMERICA WITH MEGAFAUNA: FUTURE OR FOOLISH?

By Aoife Hutton

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The concept of rewilding has recently emerged as a hot topic in both scientific and public spheres. Championed by the writings of George Monbiot in his book ‘Feral and popular TED talk, rewilding pushes the bounds of a previously a conservative approach to conservation science and encourages us to reassess our goals, and aim big.

Rebecca McDonald, a 4th year ecological and environmental science undergraduate at University of Edinburgh, last week presented a project on the aims, scope and logic of a potential rewilding effort in North America proposed by Donlan et al., (2005). Rebecca’s project was refreshingly critical in scrutinizing just how realistic the often times romaticised concept of rewilding actually is.

Donlan et al. proposed that rewilding should aim to restore ecosystem function of the Pleistocene era and reintroduce megafauna lost 13,000 years ago – a time long before human arrival in North America. In particular, this would mean refilling the niche once taken by proboscidians (mammoths, mastadons and gomphotheres). Modern day relatives most similar are the Asian and African elephants. As idyllic as elephants roaming along the edges of Route 66 may sound, there are some pretty mammoth logistical issues involved.

 

How would elephants be transported to the US? How would elephants react to a vegetation they have not evolved to live with? What impact would human-elephant interactions and conflict have? And for the economists among, how much would all of this cost?

Alongside these quite obvious concerns, maybe it is time to address the elephant in the room about Pleistocene rewilding; if the aim is to restore ecological function of a pre-human time, how do we, as humans, co-exist?

The fundamental separation of human and non-human animals inferred (perhaps albeit unintentionally) by this kind of rewilding scheme is problematic on several levels. If we aim to restore ecological function to a time before human existence in an area, how do resolve the fact that humans do and have been living in those areas for many generations.

Sadly, conservation has been an oppressive force to indigenous people – one just has to look at the displacement of Native American people from tribal land for the creation of National Parks in the US as an example. While rewilding North America wouldn’t necessarily lead to similar circumstance, the cultural and social implications of such a project definitely need to be examined more thoroughly to address such concerns.

Not all rewilding projects have a Pleistocene era as the end-sight, and countless projects have shown the success of rewilding, delivering the top-down benefits to ecosystems which advocates of the concept endorse. Taking a more recent point in geological time as the aim seems to prove for a more attainable result, one such case was the reintroduction of wolves in Greenstone National Park, US, which had been lost from the area less than 100 years prior. The reintroduction achieved expected and desirable top down changes to the ecosystem, restoring beaver populations and ultimately affecting river hydrology.

While some rewilding efforts do seem highly effective tool in conservation science, I remain skeptical over Pleistocene era rewilding. In this case, time and resource seems better spent on looking after the flora and fauna in our presently existent biosphere, and on trying to break down barriers of the human/non-human interface, so that we can come to see ourselves as not only a cause of problems to ecosystems, but also as components which are a part of a living ecosystem – we are not above it.

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