Thursday, August 18, 2005

Pleistocene Park

A couple of years ago I read Tim Flannery's The Eternal Frontier - a full-fledged ecological history of North America from the end of the age of the dinosaurs to the modern era. One of the key themes (also covered in The Future Eaters) was how the arrival of humans around 13,000 years ago had changed the ecosystem. The extermination of North America's megafauna - mammoths, camels, sloths, giant armadillos, lions, cheetahs, and most recently the buffalo - transformed the landscape, and led to a severely unbalanced ecosystem. The lack of natural checks and balances from top predators and browsers has led to some species teetering on the brink of extinction, while others spread like plagues. Towards the end of the book, Flannery suggested an innovative solution for this problem: trying to rebuild the pre-human ecosystem:

I believe that the great question faced by park managers in North America today is whether, where it is suitable, they should reintroduce elephant, camel, Chacoan peccary, llama, panther and lion into their reserves. It is important to consider the truly gigantic species, for as G. Evelyn Hutchinson said in his 'Hints for an Agenda', if one has to prioritise, it's good to know 'how big is it and how fast does it happen?' As far as megafauna is concerned, we could begin with considering the two living species of elephant and their suitability as ecological replacements for the mammoth (the Indian elephant is closest) and the mastodon (the African elephant bears some similarities).

Flannery also suggests that this should eventually spread beyond national parks and conservation reserves to provide land management for humans. Reportedly such a scheme has been successful in the Sonoran Desert, where "a diverse assemblage of introduced browsers and grazers can produce higher yields per hectare to ranchers than can cattle alone".

Now, this idea has gained further support, with scientists at Cornell University suggesting the reintroduction of analogues for extinct species in order to

revitalise ecosystems, generate ecotourism and create land management jobs to help struggling economies in rural areas of the US.


The "rewilding" scheme, outlined in the journal Nature, would unfold in several phases. To start with, small numbers of animals, including elephants and lions, would be released on private land.

Each step would be carefully guided by the fossil record and scientific assessments of the environmental impact. Ultimately, one or more "ecological history parks" covering vast areas of economically depressed parts of the Great Plains would be opened up.

As in Africa, perimeter fencing would limit the movement of elephants and large carnivores that might endanger human settlements.

I think this is an interesting idea and a grand experiment in ecological management. It will be interesting to see how it turns out.


i've heard a similar sort of argument in relation to grazing in australia.

graziers will struggle to grow domestic species like beef, but complain that kangaroo is a pest...

in the early days the only way their ranches survived was through government subsidies and using aboriginals as slave labour.

but growing roos? apparently the things are only good for dog tucker. which is bulldust, roo is damn tasty.

Posted by Anonymous : 8/18/2005 03:39:00 PM

I regularly eat roo. Its a good, lean meat, and as I'm currently cut off from my traditional venison supply, it makes a good replacement. However, they're legally not _allowed_ to farm it here (in the ACT, at least) - all roo meat sold is required to be shot by registered cullers, not farmed.

Posted by Weekend_Viking : 8/18/2005 03:44:00 PM

I love the way Victorian supermarkets keep the roo in the pet food chiller.

Posted by Anonymous : 8/18/2005 04:12:00 PM

Bring on the animals!
the only problem is htey will get in the way of the GE mega fauna that we should be reintroducing in a few decades

Posted by Genius : 8/18/2005 08:28:00 PM

i think that most of that roo meat sold in supermarkets is just shot in the wild and not treated hygienically.

but there's a bush tucker butcher in Clayton, Melbourne for instance that sells roo in cryopacks.

it is a good meat. if you sear it and then barbeque it to medium rare (at the very, very most), it is seriously good.

but then that could be why people don't eat it... if you overcook it it turns to leather.

and, on the subject, camel is almost exactly beef. tried some in the NT and it was great.

Posted by Anonymous : 8/19/2005 08:01:00 AM