Thursday, August 18, 2005

African hunters on US plains?

Today, the BBC ran an interesting story -- Cornell University scientists are seriously considering the idea of importing cheetahs, lions, wild horses, elephants and other big lifeforms to run wild on the Great Plains.

By introducing living counterparts to the extinct animals, the researchers say, these voids could be filled. So, by introducing free-ranging African cheetahs to the Southwest, strong interactions with pronghorns could be restored, while providing cheetahs with a new habitat. ...

Other living species that could "stand in" for Pleistocene-era animals in North America include feral horses (Equus caballus), wild asses (E. asinus), Bactrian camels (Camelus bactrianus), Asian (Elephas maximus) and African (Loxodonta africana) elephants and lions (Panthera leo).

"Obviously, gaining public acceptance is going to be a huge issue, especially when you talk about reintroducing predators," said lead author Josh Donlan, of Cornell University. "There are going to have to be some major attitude shifts. That includes realising predation is a natural role, and that people are going to have to take precautions."

Yeah, Dr. Donlan, it'll be a huge issue. Did you forgot that this is part of the country where people still object to the idea of reintroducing native predators like wolves... by killing them? Or that the big native herbivore, the bison, still only counts a small number of wild survivors in pockets of what was once a vast range, the vast majority being raised on private ranches?

I agree that average people need to learn that predation is a necessary part of the ecosystem, but we should focus on re-establishing the wolves first. I suspect introducing African species won't result in filling the voids, it will create more problems for a native species' population web that has stabilized without them. They have, after all, been gone around 13,000 years. While that time isn't enough to create significant genetic changes, it has certainly allowed for some behavioral adaptation that new predators will upset. Besides, the newcomers would most likely go after the easiest prey they can find... namely, domestic cattle. Why chase down an antelope at 60 mph when you can munch on much slower fare?

That said, I think the effort to save African species is important and the image of lions stalking prey in sight of New Mexico's I-40 would be an interesting one. But how would they react to the traffic? Today, their homeland has cars, sure, but not the kind of freeway network or the sheer traffic volume the US has. Likewise, these animals come from a climate that tends to be warmer than our plains are; although summers would probably be just fine, how well would they adapt to the Chinook blizzards of winter if they lived in Nebraska or Kansas? In Africa, some of them migrate seasonally, but that would be a problem on our Plains because of the fact that so much land is fenced up into farms and ranches, likely requiring those who get released in one area to stay there.

It's pretty obvious to me that this idea needs a little rethinking.

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