TCS Daily


American Eden

By Tim Worstall - August 19, 2005 12:00 AM

Would you like to see cheetahs and camels, lions and elephants, Przewalski's Horse and wild asses introduced into the US? The creation of parks (both public and private) perhaps the size of the Serengeti for them to roam free? There's a serious suggestion in the journal Nature that we should do exactly this. Whether or not it happens is of course for you to decide, not I as a foreigner, but I'm all for the suggestion itself for what you might regard as a slightly odd reason.

The idea has two basic roots. Firstly, that pretty much wherever humans have ended up (except where we co-evolved with them, Africa and parts of Eurasia) we've wiped out the Megafauna. There's still debate about whether it was humans hunting, or humans spreading disease, or perhaps climatic changes that actually led to the extinctions. That last reason seems weak in that at least some of the extinctions have actually been recorded as being caused by hunting and they do seem to coincide with the arrival of humans, from Australia to the Americas to Madagascar and various Indian Ocean and Pacific Islands. It really is stretching credulity to insist that all of these historically separate episodes have been caused by as yet unknown variations in the climate, even if there were climate variations concurrent with some of them. Another way to put this is to borrow from James Bond. The first time is happenstance, the second coincidence, the third enemy action, the enemy being our hungry ancestors.

The second is that this process is still going on in Africa and Eurasia. Although the large mammals in these areas are more robust in their ability to deal with human presence and encroachment, this robustness is not unlimited.

So, why don't we take breeding populations of animals where they are endangered and put them where we've wiped out their equivalents? There is one small problem in that the actual species we wiped out are, umm, wiped out, so we'll have to use the closest analogues that we can. As the suggestion points out, the absence of these large animals from the environment has led to changes in it, changes that we may well wish to reverse (and the introduction of cheetahs and lions might be the best way to deal with the proliferation of mustangs):

        The second, more controversial phase of Pleistocene re-wilding could also 
        begin immediately, with the maintenance of small numbers of African 
        cheetahs (
Acinonyx jubatus), Asian (Elephas maximus) and African 
        (
Loxodonta africana) elephants, and lions (Panthera leo) on private property. 
        Many of these animals are already in captivity in the United States, and 
        the primary challenge will be to provide them with naturalistic settings, 
        including large protected areas of appropriate habitat and, in the case of 
        carnivores, live prey.

        The African cheetah, a close relative of the American cheetah, has only a 
        modest chance of persisting in the wild in the next century. Breeding 
        programmes are not self-sustaining, but some of the 1,000 captive animals 
        could be used in re-wilding. Free-roaming, managed cheetahs in the 
        southwestern United States could save the fastest carnivore from extinction, 
        restore what must have been strong interactions with pronghorn, 
        and facilitate ecotourism as an economic alternative for ranchers.

        Managed elephant populations could similarly benefit ranchers through 
        grassland maintenance and ecotourism . 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.

The reason the captive breeding programs for cheetahs are not self sustaining is that the female needs to be chased across the countryside for five or six days before she'll agree to mate. And yes, I have been on dates like that.

Yet whether the parks and the reintroductions actually go ahead or not isn't why I'm so interested in the proposal, this is my slightly odd reason for supporting the suggestion if not the actual plan.

We're regularly told that we must walk more lightly upon this earth, that we have to make room for the other species, that the loss of biodiversity threatens us all. I agree with those thoughts. Where I disagree is in the prescription by which we should do so. For we go on to be told that we must become more like our ancestors, live closer to nature, in order to do so, return to some Rousseauesque paradise of few of us living off the land in the manner of our forefathers.

That doesn't seem to match up with what the professionals are telling us here now does it? In the case of what is now the USA, a couple of million hunter gatherers (known as the Clovis Culture) wiped out those large animals that we're talking about. Now, with three hundred million in the same area we appear to have sufficient land to save the Megafauna of other continents.

What is it then that allows us to save what is left of biodiversity? Is it living in a hut, scratching the soil with a stick to grow runty crops as much of Africa and Asia still does? Is it to go further back to being hunter gatherers (well, obviously not as they are the people who caused the problem)? Or is it to industrialize, embrace the modern economy, the sprawl of suburbs and exurbs, factory farming, GM crops, embrace me-first capitalism, in short, to follow the American model, that is going to save the planet?

That some 5% of the world's population creates 25% of the world's wealth and yet has the land left over to recreate an Edenic pre-human environment seems to indicate that there's something to be said for the American model. Perhaps we should try exporting the idea as well?

Tim Worstall is a TCS contributing writer living in Europe. Find more of his writing here.

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