Saving Wildlife From Extinction By Transplanting Them To Other Continents

Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that biologists want to bring African and Asian wildlife to roam free in North America to help restore natural ecological balances here? If so, what are the implications for biodiversity and our environment?

—Naturegirl, Victorville, CA

A group of biologists and environmentalists is advocating just such a plan to help save wild animals from extinction and restore the ecological vitality of North America’s wildlands to a state that existed before humans set foot on the continent some 13,000 years ago. The concept—whereby large mammals are reintroduced across the continent to fill ecological gaps abandoned eons ago—was first posited publicly two decades ago by bio-geographer Paul Martin of the University of Arizona.

In arguing for the introduction of lions, elephants, camels and other large mammals from around the world to North America, Martin cites the important role that so-called “megafauna” play in maintaining overall ecosystem integrity, including keeping predator/prey populations in balance and invasive species in check. Some conservationists like the idea because hosting such large mammals would require a large amount of preserved, natural open space for habitat. Others see it as a terrible idea, citing human safety issues and the difficulty such exotic animals might have adapting to such different landscapes and ecosystems.

Building on Martin’s ideas, a group of conservationists came together in 2004 to form the New Mexico-based Rewilding Institute. Members of the group co-authored a 2005 commentary in the scientific journal Nature, in which they suggested starting with a series of controlled experiments on fenced private land, as was previously done with condors and bison and led to population rebounds. Some of the first species suggested for North American introduction include giant tortoises, wild horses, camels and elephants. If such experiments pan out, cheetahs and lions could be next.

The group also wants to restore native species such as mountain lions and wolves, both of which roamed North America in large numbers before European settlers first arrived in the 1600s. The group argues that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has approached recovery of these animals “in a haphazard and minimalist way.”

“Obviously, gaining public acceptance is going to be a huge issue, especially when you talk about reintroducing predators,” says Josh Donlan, Cornell biologist and lead author on the Nature article. “There are going to have to be some major attitude shifts [including] realizing predation is a natural role, and that people are going to have to take precautions.”

Donlan adds that “rewilding” could be a win-win situation as far as people and wildlife are concerned. Portions of the Great Plains, for instance, could see an increase in tourism dollars as people flock there to see the wildlife, while the animals themselves—many of which are seriously endangered in their native lands—can take advantage of increased habitat and a decreased threat of extinction.

CONTACTS: The Rewilding Institute