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Friday, 3 March 2017

A European Krüger National Park?

The Krüger National Park is world famous – almost half as big as Switzerland, it houses a great biodiversity including a diverse megafauna, Africa’s “big five” among them. It attracts thousands of visitors every year and is one of the most important reserves in South Africa, protecting the megafaunal community.

Africa is the last continent on earth that houses more or less intact megafaunal communities. On all other continents, they have been depleted either a long time ago and/or have been disrupted quite recently (thinking of North America). Europe does not have a single place where all of the original Holocene megafauna species can be found living side by side, especially since two of them have been exterminated in their wild type, the aurochs and the European wild horse. Now imagine there would be something like the Krüger National Park in Europe – a reserve that is large enough to restore the complete megafaunal community with viable populations and that is open to visitors. This continent probably does not offer the same area size, so we have to think on a smaller scale.
Perhaps this idea is just a dream, but there is nothing wrong about dreaming it. And many great success stories started being just a dream as well, so let us be inspired by this idea and hope it might one day be possible.

A great big game park in Central Europe that contains all of the original Holocene megafaunal species would have to include:
Herbivores:
- Roe deer, Capreolus capreolus
- Red deer, Cervus elaphus
- Horse, Equus ferus
- Cattle, Bos primigenius
- Wisent, Bison bonasus
- Elk, Alces alces
- Wild boar (yes, it is of course an omnivore)
Carnivores:
- Eurasian lynx, Lynx lynx
- Wolf, Canis lupus
- Brown bear, Ursus arctos 

In a suited habitat, such as the Danube delta, one could also think about adding water buffalo to the list, although the presence of this genus in the Holocene of Europe is speculative. In higher regions, there would also be ibex and chamois. Northwards to the Limes norrlandicus, one could add reindeer and rewild musk ox instead of cattle. In southern Europe, the presence of lions and leopards would be supported by archaeological data but the introduction of these animals would probably be legally problematical. Fallow deer is controversial as a native European mammal in the Holocene, so it does not have to be added necessarily.

Imagine an area large enough to house all these species was declared a nature reserve. I do not even dare to make a guess on how large such an area must be in order to house all important European megafauna species and to allow them build up a viable population. It would be a natural or semi-natural landscape, that would be shaped in interaction with the large herbivores from now on. Red deer and roe deer, perhaps also fallow deer, would live there already. The first two species to be reintroduced into the reserve would be cattle and horses, as they are the most uncomplicated. However, they would have to be certified as wild animals in the preparation of being released, so that natural selection can shape their gene pool and there would be no need for medical examinations as currently dictated for cattle in grazing projects. One consequence might be that the cattle might not be allowed to be taken from the reserve, as it is the case in Oostvaardersplassen. When choosing the cattle to be released in the reserve, a number of the best individuals of all “breeding-back” projects was chosen, together with a few pure individuals from primitive landraces to get a broad genetic basis and all aurochs traits. For the horses, there are a lot of hardy landraces that can be used as a proxy for their extinct wild type, but the question of which colour type was predominant in European wild horses is still unclear. Genetic studies suggest that four colour variants might have been present at the same time. One would have to find a consensus if they want just one type, in which picking one hardy breed alone would be sufficient, or if they want more than one colour variant to be seen in the reserve, in which case they could mix the herds.
The next step would be to reintroduce wisent and elk. While it would probably not be that problematic to get a grown, healthy elk population, one has to be careful with the wisents which still suffer from a severe inbreeding depression. One should take care of obtaining a diverse gene pool and taking healthy individuals only, otherwise the population might crash before achieving satisfying numbers.

Having reintroduced all megaherbivores into the reserve, one should wait for a few years for the herbivores to build up large, healthy populations before predators should be introduced. The reserve could be opened for visitors in the meantime.
Lynx, which are definitely the most unproblematic of the three, could be reintroduced first. The reserve would probably not be large enough for more than one pack of wolves. And the number of bears would probably be restricted to below one dozen at maximum.

Predators are controversial for many reasons and their reintroduction is connected to many problems that do not need to be repeated here. But it is part of my dream that they are part of my dream reserve. Not just out of romantic reasons. It would be very interesting to see their impact on the herbivore populations. For example, cattle seem to be in slight disadvantage to deer and horses under circumstances like in Oostvaardersplassen, when looking at the development of the population numbers. It would be interesting if predators could change that by their prey choice. Perhaps cattle would be less prayed on by wolves than deer and horses, thus reducing the competitive pressure on their population by the other two species (in German, there is a name for it: “Prädations-vermittelte Koexistenz”, meaning something like “coexistence enabled by predation”). Also, if the aurochs-like cattle start to develop a more homogeneous coat colour, part of it could be the result of predation (there is the hypothesis that predators tend to pick out individuals with deviant colours). But that effect would probably only be visible after decades.

When thinking of megafauna, I am not thinking of mammals only. The reserve could also house golden eagles, and if a certain number of carcasses is allowed to stay in the field, it would also be a paradise for vultures. Therefore, such a reserve could be a precious contribution to the conservation and reintroduction of these species.

This kind of reserve would probably be fenced, but I would like it to be open to visitors, perhaps in the form of guided tours with a jeep. It would have some major advantages. Not only would it have educational benefits, the reserve might turn into a treasure of regional development. It might even boost tourism – Europeans would not have to leave the continent in order to see large herds of big game anymore; they could have a reserve with up to nine big game species plus eagles and vultures at their doorstep. Commercial hunting could also take place in the reserve, but only for the excess individuals that need to be culled each year (don’t get me wrong, hunting for joy repels me). This, on the other hand, could also be used to select out the deviant individuals among the aurochs-like cattle, which would be in turn beneficial for the educational component.