Cheetahs in North America?
Scientists Propose Reintroducing Some of the State's Past
2, 2005 - When Paul Martin looked across the desert landscape
near the University of Arizona he saw a very different world, at
least in his mind's eye. As an expert on the end of the
Pleistocene epoch, which ended around 13,000 years ago, he saw
North America awash with animals that are no longer here.
He saw elephants, and camels, and cheetahs, and horses, roaming
freely across the continent. These native animals disappeared
either long before humans arrived, or just as the first
Americans entered the scene.
Martin, now retired from The University of Arizona, began
talking with friends about what it would be like to restore some
of that magic to a land that has lost some of the great beasts
that once dominated the landscape.
He went so far as to propose that some effort be made to
reintroduce some of those extinct animals, or at least their
"The idea did not attract much attention," says Harry
Greene, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Cornell
University. But sometime later Greene was discussing Martin's
vision with one of his graduate students, Josh Donlan, now a
doctoral candidate at Cornell.
That discussion led to a meeting at a New Mexico ranch of
experts from across the country, including Martin, to discuss
what may be one of the boldest proposals to come out of the
environmental movement in decades.
The result was a commentary written by Donlan and published in
the prestigious journal Nature.
In that report, 11 contributors called for the reintroduction of
elephants and cheetahs and other extinct animals in a long-range
program that would result in some species roaming freely across
the land, just as they had thousands of years ago.
They called it "Pleistocene Rewilding."
Add Animals, Gain Tourists?
At the meeting on the New Mexico ranch, which is owned by media
mogul Ted Turner, the scientists decided on a first step. They
would reintroduce the Bolson tortoise, which is about the size
of a coffee table, to a part of the ranch that would be
That first experiment should begin soon, and it addresses one
fundamental goal of the project. The Bolson tortoise, now found
only in northern Mexico, will likely become extinct in the near
future if it cannot be reintroduced in a protected environment.
Likewise, many animals that are close relatives of those that
roamed North America during the Pleistocene are endangered.
Donlan cites the Bactrian camel, now endangered in the Gobi
desert, as a replacement for the extinct camels of North
America. It's not exactly the same animal, but pretty close.
These repatriated animals would be free to roam within a
protected environment, but that doesn't mean they could wander
freely into our cities to terrorize the locals.
Greene sees fences. Miles and miles of fences. Keeping animals
in, and keeping humans at a safe distance.
So who's going to do all this, and where's the money going to
come from? Greene sees some help coming from ranchers, which is
pretty surprising given the turmoil from the reintroduction of
wolves in the Yellowstone area. He has met with many ranchers in
Arizona, he says, and some are beginning to see a marriage of
very different partners.
Rewilding, Greene notes, could be very good for ranching, and
Some ranchers he has worked with, "are interested in
combining ranching with science and conservation as a means of
saving that way of life," Greene says.
An elephant could clear a lot of brush on an Arizona ranch, he
adds, paving the way for grasses that can feed a herd of cattle.
So an elephant could become sort of a ranch hand and a draw for
tourists who, presumably, would stay around for a hamburger.
Meanwhile, other extinct species could be left to prey on
animals that have flourished since their predators disappeared.
That, the researchers contend, would enhance bio-diversity.
They point to the reintroduction of wolves as evidence of that.
"That has had a spectacular effect," Greene says. Wolves
have thinned the ranks of elk, and made the survivors more
cautious, so vegetation has rebounded in many areas near
Yellowstone, providing food for other animals.
"Beavers have come back," Greene says. "I think that's
Various studies have shown that the reintroduction of the wolf
has altered the landscape remarkably; returning it more and more
to what it was like before humans decided to eliminate this top
Maybe the same reintroduction could be done for other species.
Very slowly. Rebuilding the ecology just one brick at a time.