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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.

25 comments:

  1. If we're starting to add introduced animals like the musk ox, (the current Norwegian-Swedish population is from Greenland), then Indian lions (or whatever bred back Barbary lion one could couch up) should be on the carnivore list too. Then there's Indian elephant, filling in for the Elaphas antiguus to consider. Perhaps even Amur leopard should be be added, as a replacement for the smaller sabretooth cats. There's already a reserve in Siberia, Плейстоценовый парк, the where some of these ideas are explored, but it would be insanely cool to have such a park in Europe!

    Petter Bøckman
    Norway

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    1. I was talking about musk ox northwards to the Limes norrlandicus. I know of no record for Musk ox in the climatic zone of middle Europe. I mentioned lions and leopards as candidates for Southern Europe. I don't think Amur leopards and homotheriinies are comparable. And I also doubt that Indian Elephants would be able to survive in Central Europe, and doubt that they are necessary in the megafaunal community from the ecologic point of view.

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    2. While Amur tigers and leopards would probably be able to survive climatically in northern Europe, I doubt anyone would be on board. Besides, while leopards were found there at some point, it is lions that were found alongside them, not tigers (Not implying anybody here suggested it, but I have heard it before) and their ecotypes are quite dissimilar. They are both very different from homotherium.

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    3. The elephants living in the slopes of the Himalayas might survive in Central Europe. If their ecology turns out similar to that of the African savannah elephant, they would have a dramatic impact in the ecology, knocking down trees to create more open landscapes. Finding a sanctuary large enough would be a problem though...

      Petter Bøckman

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    4. Ha! Homotherium, a lost dream. Hope we will find one somewhere frozen in Siberia!

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  2. I don't think that reserves are sufficient to maintain the biodiversity and save these species. A reserve will never be big enough. There are more wolves in Europe than in the states but in Europe they are living among us and in the states in reserves. In Africa the future of Lions or wild dogs is dark despite all the reserves that are existing there. For me the key is to find a way to share a common space. Apart that leopard should be part of your dream even in central Europe as well as possibly Dhole, saiga antelope and a lot of others.

    Bruno Moreau
    France

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  3. Great Article! Also worth noting that a European rewilding areas would also include wild boar, and possibly ibex, chamoi, and/or mouflon depending on the area. Alongside lions and leopards, I think hyenas would also be possible with a large enough space. You have also mentioned the possibility of using Asiatic wild ass as a proxy for European wild ass. I don't think elephants or rhinos would be very practical, but perhaps hippos could be implemented in certain areas, not a priority though. Somebody mentioned dholes and that might be a possibility, as well as golden jackals.

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    1. Oops, I forgot about wild boar, probably because it is an omnivore. Also included ibex and chamois for the higher regions, thanks for pointing that out.
      As for golden jackals, it seems that they are expanding into Europe by themselves at the moment.

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    2. I imagine the mouflon will be seen in a similar light to fallow deer. Possibly present at one point, disappeared for unknown reason, and recently reintroduced through human activities. Probably not a threat but certainly not a priority either.

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  4. Perhaps in Southern Europe (the rhodope mountains of Greece and Bulgaria, Europe's largest wild area) there is room for elephant and rhino too? It was once home to lions and leopards in the Holocene, perhaps their last stronghold in Europe other than the Caucasus. As I'm sure you know, Paleoloxodon was Europe's temperate elephant species and Stephanorhinus Europe's rhino, their extinction was, debatably, caused by humanity.
    Why should we limit ourselves to a Holocene fauna that was already depleted by human influence? The late Pleistocene is a much better benchmark of an intact ecosystem, prior human (well, H.sapiens anyway) influence. In addition to elephants and rhinos there is the question of Equus hydruntinus, Bubalus murrensis, Gazella borbonica, Crocuta crocuta and many other species that characterised European interglacial fauna up until the LGM.
    As Sir Alfred Russell Wallace said;
    "we live in a zoologically impoverished world, from which all the hughest, and fiercest, and strangest forms have recently disappeared."

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    1. It is not certain that Palaeoloxodon and Stephanocheorus disappeared because of human influence; it is likely, but we do not know for sure. We know for sure, on the other hand, that all the species I mentioned above lived here. We do not know for sure in the case of rhinos, elephants and water buffalo. Furthermore, in the case of the latter three, we'd have to introduce an alien species here because the European form does not exist anymore (ok, the distance between B. murrensis and B. arnee is maybe not that dramatic), and I wonder why so many people automatically assume that elephants and rhinos would be able to survive in European climate. They are of a completely different ecotype.

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  5. In mediterranean climate rhinos and elephants would do well but people are not ready for it. I agree that in central Europe that would not be a good idea. At least it is not worth while trying because there are not too many of them.

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  6. Regarding elks (mooses for the US) they are already expanding to the West and they reached Germany even relatively far from the Poland boarder. Elks will come back to western Europe by themselves (though it will be nice helping them to go faster). Golden Jackals same thing, but at a greater and faster scale, they reached Switzerland and even the baltic countries.

    Leopards will also come back by themselves assuming that people let them doing so but the process, if left alone, may take hundred of years. The Russians are now reintroducing them in Caucasus which is in Europe and there are still some rare individuals in Georgia and Azerbadjan. Let them alive and they will naturally expand.

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    1. Animals will spread given the chance. Boars are on their way to (re)establish in Norway, and the wolf have found their way to Denmark and even the Netherlands. They even found a dead golden jackal was found in Denmark last year.

      Petter Bøckman

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  7. russians are also reintroducing wood Bisons in Yakutia. They have a herd of 177 bisons in captivity. The first 30 Bisons will be reintroduced this fall/winter in an area rich of elks, deers And carnivores
    http://arctic.ru/environmental/20170215/552864.html
    http://getrussia.com/articles/reviving_the_russian_bison/

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  8. Also just pointing out that more northern reserves would also contain wolverines, which are active deer predators.

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  9. Actually what you are citing exists since a while ago, look at the group of parks in central alps: Swiss National Park, Parco Nazionale dello Stelvio, Parco dell’Adamello Brenta and the neighbouring parks such as Parc Ela, Parco delle Orobie Bergamasche, Parco dell’alto Garda Bresciano. In those area across the years many species have been successfully reintroduced: ibex, bearded vulture, red deer, lynx . Wolf found itself its way back. Not to cite the park system in central Apennine: Parco Nazionale dei Monti Sibillini, Parco Nazionale del Gran Sasso, Parco Naturale Sirente-Velino, la Majella, Parco Nazione di Lazio, Abruzzo e Molise. In this area the griffon vulture, the Apennine chamois, the common raven, the roe and the reed deer had been introduced. This just citing charismatic megafauna. Of course a lot more has still to be done especially a better connection between core areas and a better integration of conservation stretegies especially in areas crossing a national border. Given that, in Europe we are at the frontline in Nature conservation and in my opinion European safari Areas with lions, elephants, rhino and buffalos, suggested by foundations of psudo-Scientists are simply ridiculous and out of any scientific and practical sense.

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    1. As far as I know, there are no free roaming bisons, cattles, elks and horses in Italia though I agree that you are more advanced than many other european countries regarding wildlife preservation (at least compared to France, England or Switzerland).

      Regarding rewilding I see too main issues. The first one is the time baseline to consider(pleistocene? holocene? and if holocène then when? 5000 y ago? or 100 y ago?). The second one is what people are ready to accept. All that are moving lines. Understanding of european wildlife in the past is progressing and minds are also moving (what is accepted in 2017 is not what was accepted in 1930).

      As far as I'm concerned, the end of pleistocene or possibly the beginning of holocène is a good time baseline and then you come to more or less 15000 to 10000 y ago (nothing in terms of earth history). Based on that, you list the species that were in the various european climatic zones and you think to the question why did they vanish from these places? For me, the answer is obvious it is due to the expansion of human beings nothing else.

      You will find that lions, and many others, were living there at least in part of Europe in not so distant time. Reintroducing the lion is not something stupid in scientific terms but I agree that it is impossible today because the minds are not ready at all to accept it. Look at India, population densitu is much higher than in Europe and they have tigers, lions, rhinoceros and elephants and it works. Tigers and lions population are even expanding. Of course problem are also there because nothing is perfect.

      Note that I did not say that we must reintroduce elephant in Europe (today it cannot even be thought) but it is not ridiculous to imagine it.

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  10. Regarding European climate, I would say the Mediterranean countries (Iberia, Italy and the Balkan states including Greece) have a climate in which megafauna (elephants, rhinos, lions, etc) will survive and thrive.

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  11. Pleistocene Park are running a Kickstarter campaign to buy and transport plains bison and yak to the park. AFAIK, they are planning to use domestic yak, as they are cheaper and easier to get a hold of, while still filling the same ecological niche as wild yak.

    https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/907484977/pleistocene-park-an-ice-age-ecosystem-to-save-the

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    1. Well, wood bison are better adopted to cold conditions, aren't they ?Sso why plains bison ? Also because they are cheaper ? But it would get less cheaper if they don't make it...
      And why a white yak... ?

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  12. How about something at Stonehenge in the UK - OK, only around 30,000ha of space available initially, but ample scope for enlargement. I've written about this here: https://naturalareasblog.wordpress.com/2017/01/15/a-serengeti-at-stonehenge/

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  14. Weren't lions part of the European Holocene fauna?

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    1. How about reading the article properly?

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