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Saturday, August 20, 2005

Environment & Energy Saturday

A modest proposal

By now you've all probably heard about Josh Donlan of Cornell University who, with his colleagues, in this week's issue of Nature (subscription required for article), advocates introducing some African species of big mammal into the Great Plains of North America. It sounds ludicrous, but often the most ludicrous ideas are also the most ingenious. These biologists are quite serious about what they're proposing, so let's give it fair consideration.


The Economist:
In theory, the return of the big mammals would result in more diversity throughout the ecosystem. It would also, the researchers suggest, bring tourists flocking to the Great Plains and provide an alternative income for people there. That may sound fanciful. But, as Mr Donlan's paper points out, there are already some 77,000 large exotic mammals, most of them African or Asian species, roaming freely on private ranches in Texas and, in some cases, attracting paying customers.

Many mainstream conservationists are naturally (in more than one sense of that word) suspicious. Chris Haney, a conservation biologist at Defenders of Wildlife, a voluntary conservation group, fears the effort might detract from what he describes as "more realistic" goals, such as the reintroduction of wolves, bison, grizzly bears and North American elk. These reintroductions have faced bitter opposition from some ranchers, farmers and politicians. In Yellowstone National Park, a wolf-reintroduction programme begun in 1995 was ultimately successful, but not before a number of lawsuits were heard, thousands of dollars paid to ranchers for lost livestock, and two of the wolves illegally shot. If programmes like this were seen not merely in isolation, but as the first steps in a grand plan to reintroduce lions and cheetahs, they would be even harder to implement.

Eric Dinerstein, chief scientist at the World Wildlife Fund US, another conservation charity, has a related objection. He suggests Mr Donlan's idea might be damaging not only to efforts to conserve North American species, but also to the very Old World species it is intended to save. He thinks Mr Donlan is too pessimistic about the chances of preserving endangered animals in their African and Asian homes. Rather than spending money to establish those species in North America, Dr Dinerstein would prefer to see it spent conserving them where they live now.

Both of these objections are sensible, though not overwhelmingly so. But Dr Haney has a more visceral worry, too. Modern conservation is generally against the idea of species being spread into novel habitats, and he opposes Mr Donlan's idea on those grounds, as well.

One reason conservationists try to stop alien introductions is pragmatic - they sometimes do serious damage to native species. Rats, cats and pigs, for example, have wrecked the native fauna of many a small island. But part of the objection to alien introductions has an ideological flavour. There is a feeling that what exists now (or, at least, what existed before man stuck his oar in) is what ought to exist. It is pristine. Shipping in other species is, in a sense, a form of pollution.

Perhaps it is, although such pollution does happen naturally from time to time. But even if such introductions are not the ideal solution, they may be the best one available. Mr Donlan's idea is a big and imaginative proposal to solve a clear and present danger. It is certainly worth some careful scrutiny.


Questions:

Will it save these species?

Are they in such danger that such radical measures are needed?

Doesn't it make better economic sense to make use of the land this way, as the article argues?

1 Comments:



Blogger Gustav said...

Would the thing be enclosed somehow?

8/20/2005 08:17:00 PM  

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