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September 16, 2005
Contact: Roger Martin, KU Center for Research, (785) 864-7239.

Roger Martin commentary: Bad idea to turn Great Plains into another Africa

LAWRENCE -- Kansas has had a lot of tourism slogans, including, back in the 1980s, "America's Central Park." Apparently, that one made an impression.

I had that thought recently as I read a commentary by 11 conservationists in the journal Nature. Their admirable goal is to save the large African mammals that are dying out, the elephants and camels and cheetah.

The scientists noted that about 13,000 years ago, during the Pleistocene, distant cousins of today's African beasts had roamed the Great Plains. The scientists also noted that the number of Homo sapiens on the Plains is dwindling today.Finally, they noted that people out here share a history with what they gingerly termed "large vertebrates."

So, they wondered, why not bring tortoises to Texas? Or camels to New Mexico? And, in a second phase of "re-wilding" the Plains – admittedly more controversial – how about cheetahs, elephants and lions? On private property, of course.

"A terrible idea," says Leonard Krishtalka, director of the University of Kansas Natural History Museum and Biodiversity Research Center.

Senior curator Larry Martin joked, "I don't have any problems with these things if they've got a good enough fence. Everything depends on the quality of the fence."

Martin's remark made me think that the scientists who wrote the Nature commentary had some way or other heard about the America's Central Park motto, dusted it off and changed it to America's Pleistocene Park.

Kelly Kindscher, associate scientist at the Kansas Biological Survey, objects that some of the creatures suggested for import aren't even in the same genus as their ancient Plains relatives. If we're going to re-wild the Plains, start with bison or elk, Kindscher says. If it's Pleistocene action we're after, why bother to reintroduce animals like wolves when we could bring back packs of wild dogs?

Rafe Brown, assistant curator of herpetology at the museum, said that students in his lab group, which discussed the idea, were also skeptical. One of the strongest arguments against the idea is that where species are introduced to a new territory, things easily spin out of control, Brown says.

The central American cane toad was brought to Australian sugar cane fields to control pests. Since then, It's run amok.

Some of the world's prettiest pigs – with brightly colored manes and dramatic tusks – are being hybridized out of existence in the Philippines because of contact with tame grunters.

Playing ecological roulette – bringing together species that weren't together – is tricky, Brown says.

Steve Ashe, a senior curator at the museum, says it takes a whole ecosystem to sustain animals in the style to which they've become accustomed. He sees all kinds of problems in reconstructing an African ecosystem on the Plains. Ashe also wonders how animals used to African climate cycles would survive the temperate Midwest, with its occasional bitter cold.

A few years ago, an idea far less radical than Pleistocene re-wilding made the rounds. The notion was to repopulate the Plains with the American bison. It drew fire from farmers and ranchers. Still, that's a much more sensible idea if we want to reintroduce vanished species to the Plains.

No way is "Give me a home where the elephants roam" ever going to play in WaKeeney.

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