You’ve Waited 11,700 Years. Now it’s Here. Pleistocene Park.
Had enough of the Holocene? Sick of talk of the Anthropocene? Have no fear – scientists have come up with the latest, newest, shiniest attraction park for you: Pleistocene Park. Once the experimental version has delivered some interest, some dollars, maybe even some mild signs of success, they will be more than happy to expand it into Pleistocene Park. Ladies and gentleman, the park is open.
Two concepts are at stake in this discussion: “rewilding” and “de-extinction”.
Rewilding is the less extreme of the two and comes in many shapes and sizes. In its most modest form, rewilding would only involve allowing nature to do its thing with minimal human management or interference. For example, as the countryside largely depopulates itself in Europe, we would be rewilding by letting the former farm fields lie fallow, without much further action besides removal of fences.
In more extreme forms, rewilding involves experimenting with the return of top-predators or megafauna to landscapes where they have been long absent (often because of human-driven causes, i.e. Barnosky et al 2004). The Europeans watching without interference as the wolf steadily increases its range, or the active reintroduction of the same carnivore to Yellowstone National Park in the United States. The Dutch playground, Oostvaardersplassen, complete with Konik ponies and Heck cattle to play the part of long-extinct tarpan and aurochs. “Spared no expense”
Rewilding Europe. A private company working together with multiple European stakeholders to establish rewilding projects.
De-extinction goes further still. Why stop at spreading previously locally extinct species back into their old ranges? Why not take fully extinct species, now absent from Earth, and return them to it? Cloning, after all, is a well-practiced art now: Alberto Fernández Arias and his colleagues have succeeded in cloning a Pyrenean ibex. Never mind that it died 7 minutes after its creation. Either way, some of the big de-extinction foci for conservationist include the mammoth and the passenger penguin, the former of which went extinct around the Pleistocene-Holocene juncture, the latter in the early twentieth century.
De-extinction: An Adventure 11,700 years in the Making!
Perhaps you have caught on by now what my opinions on rewilding and de-exinction are, but I feel the need to share why I am so skeptical of these big words and often wild actions.
Firstly, a childhood in Australia has exposed to me what playing around with the wild can result in. A scientist or a well-meaning citizen may introduce a species to a new region wanting only to improve the situation, but when it goes wrong, it can go badly wrong. Species, soils, and whole landscapes that spent uncountable years to create can be destroyed beyond recognition within decades. Prickly pear, for example, completely transformed landscapes not just so the native animals and plants were choked out, but that farmers were unable to utilize the land either. Do we really want to offer up some of our most beautiful landscapes as a scientist’s playpen?
Secondly, I turn to a quote from Jurassic Park:
John Hammond: I don’t think you’re giving us our due credit. Our scientists have done things which nobody’s ever done before…
Ian Malcolm: Yeah, yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, that they didn’t stop to think if they should.
I am extremely attracted to the concept of rewilding, particularly in the European context, where many landscapes have become increasingly tame in character and the odd wolf or wild cow could certainly liven things up. However, are we not moving very fast in attempting such experiments in further reaches of the world: Pleistocene Park, jaguar in Northern Mexico, and more? With de-extinction we go much further still: do we have any right to be bringing back the dead? Should we consult culture and people and the animals themselves, asking questions of right and wrong, necessary and superfluous, before engaging in such world-changing projects?
Should we be bringing bones back to life? (Image from Flickr, Quinn Dombrowski)
Whilst I embrace the utility of improving ecosystem function of now depleted habitats, I ask: what is wrong with the current catalogue of Earth’s beings? Why does our ecosystem engineer have to be big, impressive and long-dead? Is de-extinction for the habitat, for people, or simply a prestige project for some slightly self-oriented scientists? Before these questions are satisfactorily answered, proceeding with de-extinction is a high-risk, low-return project.
Rewilding, or as Paul Jepson and Chris Doughty prefer “upgrading”, is even better than conservation, going a step beyond trying to capture the remnants of the wilderness in great national parks (as Teddy Roosevelt inspired many to do). Rewilding is urging us to use our human imaginations as the limit to nature: no longer let the wild try to establish what it once had, we’ll set the parameters to the game and only then can nature play its part. De-extinction may become rewilding’s greatest toy: bring back the dead in part or whole form to liven up our landscapes and bring back ecosystem functionality.
What could possibly go wrong?