Reintroducing only 1-3 animal species might restore vast swaths of damaged ecosystems to anything resembling their former splendor, and a UN-funded research has found 20 large animals that, if properly positioned, could restore most of the planet.
Some species play a disproportionately large role in their local habitat, making their extinction especially destructive. On the other hand, when a species is regionally extinct rather than completely extinct, restoring a population from another location can have astonishingly good outcomes.
The reintroduction of a few wolves to Yellowstone Park is likely the most well-known example, but there is still controversy about whether any of the wolves’ impacts were due to sampling error.
The United Nations Environment Program tasked Dr. Carly Vynne of the non-profit RESOLVE with leading a team tasked with finding species with the most potential for impact. The scientists published their findings in the journal Ecography, revealing 13 herbivorous animals and seven predators that might help us reclaim much of the natural world we’ve lost. The advantages of a single species in an area can cascade down the food chain, increasing the abundance and diversity of soil invertebrates.
In a statement, Vynne added, “Our findings provide both hope and scope for reversing the erosion of entire zoological groups.”
To figure out what kind of restoration is needed, the scientists compared present habitats to those 500 years ago, when intercontinental travel and the industrial revolution accelerated local species extinction. They discovered that just 16 percent of the world retains complete wild animal groups, and only 6% is identical to the pre-1500 form.
Despite this, the researchers found that a 54 percent increase in land holding complete mammal groups could be accomplished rather easily, mostly in the far north and portions of Africa and South America. The authors of the report identify the 30 ecoregions they believe should be prioritized for such a program.
Even in Europe, where extensive deterioration has lasted the longest, the proper placement of beaver, bison, reindeer, wolf, and lynx might alter the landscape. The wolf and wild horse alone have the potential to rebuild vast swaths of Asia.
Hippopotamuses, cheetahs, and lions in Africa are obvious examples, but the research also highlights the potential of lesser-known species like the dama gazelle and common tsessebe.
Many of the other creatures on the list are endangered or vulnerable, including the dama gazelle. Their return might assure their own survival, but it would also aid many of their lesser-known cousins.
“Our proposals may not be acceptable everywhere on the ground just yet,” said UNEP co-author Joe Gosling. “Local assessments will evaluate if, for example, hunting pressures or a lack of a sufficient prey base imply other concerns need to be addressed before launching a reintroduction program.”
“However, our findings demonstrate that if mitigating variables are addressed, there are vast regions of the planet that might be appropriate for big mammal restoration.”
Keystone species restoration is typically necessary for the resuscitation of Indigenous traditions, and it may also benefit urban communities. Thousands of little beaver dams, for example, are more successful than contemporary infrastructure at controlling floods and droughts.
The advantages of re-wilding go well beyond the preservation of species. Because healthy ecosystems contain more carbon than damaged ones, initiatives like these have the potential to combat climate change, but the extent to which they can do so is still up for discussion.
Carnivore reintroduction is sometimes contentious since they represent a threat to livestock and are thought to be deadly to people, despite the lack of proof. With the probable exception of hippopotamuses, Africa’s most dangerous animal, herbivores often meet less opposition.
Any reintroductions are likely to be short-lived unless hunting and other risks are controlled.