Ecologist Josh Donlan on Bringing Sexy Animals Back via "Rewilding"

lions in North American and conversation with Josh Donlan photo

Image Credit: Yves Roumazeilles

Josh Donlan wants conservation biology to have teeth. He's at the forefront of a hot new discipline called REWILDING. If he has his way, the bump in the night might be a lion or cheetah stalking you for dinner, and deer crossing signs will needed to be replaced with African Elephant caution lights. Rewiliding promises to restore North American ecosystems to a more appropriate state - but does it fly in the face of the new green movement? You'll have to decide for yourself, and please don't touch the animals, you could lose a finger. I had a chance with talk to Josh Donlan, visiting fellow at Cornell University, visiting scientist with CSIRO Marine & Atmospheric Research and founder of Advanced Conservation Strategies, about his thoughts on rewilding, green building and the new green movement.

Rewilding: The Future or the Past?
The concept of rewilding was first brought to the forefront of evolutionary ecology more than two decades ago. There are some very interesting projects around the world that are experimenting with the theory. The primary tenet of the theory is a focus of reintroducing megafauna (a cool word roughly meaning mammals larger than 100 or 200 lbs). Donlan explains it better: "The idea: Re-create the missing ecological functions and evolutionary potential of lost megafauna by using closely related species as analogues." Or in layman's terms, rewilding wants to go one step farther than simply managing natural landscapes and trying preserve current populations of species.

Donlan feels there's a general lack of attention to the functional importance of the extinct megafauna to ecosystems. Moreover, he sees conservation biology expanding to include not only individual species but also species interaction, or the symbiosis relationship(s) between two or more species.

Donlan explains that "Species interactions are impossible to observe and vastly more difficult to understand when looking back in time. The strong inter-actors in paleo-ecosystems should have left evidence of their influence through their evolutionary effects on other species."

A perfect example is being relived in Yellowstone National Park with the reintroduction of wolves. "Grey wolves," Donlan says, "alter the vegetation by changing where elk go to forage, and these changes in vegetation patterns influence migratory birds. The loss of wolves facilitated population increases of their large ungulate prey thereby intensifying herbivory and reducing the distribution and abundance of aspen and other tree species."

But rewilding doesn't stop with reintroducing wolves; as the above statement about paleoecosystems suggests, the benchmark for ecological functionality is not 1492. "In North America, we routinely turn to the Columbian landfall as a de facto restoration baseline. The late Pleistocene arrival of the very first Americans constitute a less arbitrary benchmark." And if you're wondering what that means, well, as mentioned before, rewilding wants to reintroduce analogue species of extinct mammals such as the Shasta ground sloth, western camel, the Mexican horse and the American lion and cheetah.

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