Rewilding: The Elephant in the Room

Why shouldn’t Europe have a Serengeti or two? This is a question posed by George Monbiot in his 2013 article in the Guardian newspaper. Every continent except for Australia and Antarctica were home to huge populations of Proboscideans, more commonly known as elephants! North America had the Mammoth, South America had their own Mastodon and Europe had the straight-tusked elephant, a close relative of the Asian elephant.

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The straight-tusked elephant was abundant and widely distributed over much of Western Europe with their range even extending into the UK. Their range was dependent on the distribution of deciduous woodland, their natural habitat. During the earths Last Cold Stage, much of the vegetation on which the elephant survived disappeared, restricting this great giant’s range. However the final blow for the straight-tusked elephant is likely to have come from extensive hunting by early humans. There is contention amongst scientists in dating when the elephant was around in Europe; the majority of experts believe that the species became extinct around 30, 000 years ago on the mainland. However a small population of the giant’s cousin, the Dwarf Elephant, survived until as recently as 3000 years ago on a small Mediterranean Island. If you are interested in looking closer at the extinctions of the straight-tusked elephant and woolly mammoth have a look at a paper by Anthony, 2005.

Elephants are what scientists like to call “ecosystem engineers”; this means that they play a pivotal role in changing the ecosystem around them. Elephants modify their habitats through a variety of different mechanisms including tree removal and seed, nutrient and water dispersal. (If you want to know more about just how important megafauna are for nutrient dispersal look at our very own Chris Doughty’s 2013 paper “The legacy of the Pleistocene megafauna extinctions on nutrient availability in Amazonia”) These services that elephants provide transform natural environments from woodland to savannah, which would mean that Europe might look very different today had the straight-tusked elephant not become extinct.

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WITHOUT ELEPHANTS                                                                     WITH ELEPHANTS

(Image shows tree cover inside an area protected from elephants as opposed to outside)

So why might we try to bring back elephants into Europe? Well there has been much success with a conservation scheme called rewilding. The term rewilding is still young and suffers from a lack of focused definition. I will use the definition advocated by George Monbiot that rewilding is the process of mass restoration of ecosystems. But rewilding does not just stop with restoration; it advocates that active conservation then takes a back seat, as nature plays out uninhibited by human management. This does not mean that there is no human interaction with the ecosystem, it simply means that we do not try to maintain an ecosystem in what we deem as a “pristine state”. The rewilding concept is taking Europe by storm with large charismatic herbivores being reintroduced into abandoned farmland and other areas by the Rewilding Europe team. Rewilding Europe has programmes for reintroducing Bison, Wild Horses and Tauros (the Tauros is a type of wild cattle selectively bread to function similar to an ancient wild breed of cattle, the Auroch. For more info visit Rewilding Europe’s Website).

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Elephants maybe seen to be stretching the concept of rewilding a bit too far, however it is not a subject that is completely unheard of in debates in the academic sphere. Dustin Rubenstein (2006) discussed the controversial proposal by a group of biologists to introduce African and Asian megafuana into a “Pleistocene Park” in North America. The proposal was shut down but it sparked interesting debate amongst the academic community as to whether a concept such as this would be considered “good conservation”.

In the end a plan to introduce the Asian elephant as a functional cousin of the straight-tusked elephant into Europe seems to be too far-fetched for our lifetime, but I believe it is something to consider. After all, it would be unwise to ignore the elephant in the room.

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