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animals in Chauvet Cave in France

Animals that lived in Ice Age Europe around 40,000 years ago at same time modern humans and Neanderthal roamed the continent included wooly mammoths, cave bears, mastodons, saber tooth tigers, cave lions, wooly rhinoceros, steppe bison, giant elk, and the European wild ass.

Predation by early men and the shrinking of Ice Age grasslands are both believed to have led to the sudden extinction of animals named above. Other species such as the musk ox and saiga antelope managed to survive in only small pockets. The mass extinctions are believed to have been partly the result of these animals having never been hunted by humans and having little fear of them.

Ice Age megafauna, including the woolly mammoth and the cave bear, became extinct around the same time around 10,000 years ago.. It is believed that these animals were driven to extinction by a mix of environmental factors, which may have also included competition for resources with modern humans, who were spreading throughout Europe and the Americas at this time.

The end of the large-game hunting cultures marked the end of the early stone age (Paleolithic period) and the beginning of the middle stone age (Mesolithic period) when early man derived his protein from fish, shellfish and deer instead of large animals like mammoth and buffalo.

Websites and Resources on Hominins and Human Origins: Smithsonian Human Origins Program ; Institute of Human Origins ; Becoming Human University of Arizona site ; Talk Origins Index ; Last updated 2006. Hall of Human Origins American Museum of Natural History ; Wikipedia article on Human Evolution Wikipedia ; Human Evolution Images; Hominin Species ; Paleoanthropology Links ; Britannica Human Evolution ; Human Evolution ; National Geographic Map of Human Migrations ; Humin Origins Washington State University ; University of California Museum of Anthropology; BBC The evolution of man"; "Bones, Stones and Genes: The Origin of Modern Humans" (Video lecture series). Howard Hughes Medical Institute.; Human Evolution Timeline ; Walking with Cavemen (BBC) ; PBS Evolution: Humans; PBS: Human Evolution Library; Human Evolution: you try it, from PBS; John Hawks' Anthropology Weblog ; New Scientist: Human Evolution; Fossil Sites and Organizations: The Paleoanthropology Society; Institute of Human Origins (Don Johanson's organization); The Leakey Foundation; The Stone Age Institute; The Bradshaw Foundation ; Turkana Basin Institute; Koobi Fora Research Project; Maropeng Cradle of Humankind, South Africa ; Blombus Cave Project; Journals: Journal of Human Evolution; American Journal of Physical Anthropology; Evolutionary Anthropology; Comptes Rendus Palevol ; PaleoAnthropology

Last Ice Age and Animals

Ice Ages have occurred about 100,000 years or so for the last 2 million years. Around 125,000 years ago, in the middle of major warm, interglacial period, sea levels were 20 to 30 feet higher than they are today. Areas of Africa, the Middle East and West Asia that are desert today were covered by tropical deciduous forests and savanna dotted with numerous lakes.

Europe in the last ice age

After that the climate began getting colder. By around 100,000 years a new Ice Age had begun. About 65,000 years, in the middle of the ice age, glaciers covered nearly 17 million square miles, including much of northern Europe and Canada, and sea levels were more than 400 feet lower that they are today. Many islands and land masses that are now separated by ocean water were connected by land bridges. Among the land masses that were connected were Australia and Indonesia, and Alaska and Siberia.

Around 40,000 years ago glaciers began to melt. At that time they still covered most of Britain and extended into Europe as far south as Germany. By around 17,000 years ago they had retreated from Germany. Around 13,000 they had retreated from Sweden. The Ice Age officially ended about 10,000 years ago.

The landscape of Europe was covered by ice. But it was also altered in other ways not directly related to the ice. As the glaciers moved southward, for example, forests were replaced with tundra and steppe. During the last ice age Europe was covered mostly by open steppe which is an ideal habitat for grazing animals like horses, rhinos, deer, mammoth, reindeer and bison. Vast herds of these animals, fed on steppe grasses, roamed across Europe and Asia. As the Ice Ages ended and the climate warmed up, the habitant for the large animals herds declined as the grasslands were replaced by birch and evergreen forests.

Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in The New Yorker: “Among ecologists, the prevailing view of Europe in its natural, which is to say pre-agrarian, state is that it was heavily forested. (The continent’s last stands of old-growth forest are found on the border of Poland and Belarus, in the Bialowieza Forest, which the author Alan Weisman has described as a “relic of what once stretched east to Siberia and west to Ireland.”)” An ecologist named Frans “Vera argues that, even before Europeans figured out how to farm, the continent was more of a parklike landscape, with large expanses of open meadow. It was kept this way, he maintains, by large herds of herbivores—aurochs, red deer, tarpans, and European bison. (The bison, also known as wisents, were hunted nearly to extinction by the late eighteen-hundreds.) [Source: Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker , December 24 & 31, 2012 ||*||]

“Vera has written up his argument in a dense, five-hundred-page treatise that has received a good deal of attention from European naturalists, not all of it favorable. A botany professor at Dublin’s Trinity College, Fraser Mitchell, has written that an analysis of ancient pollen “forces the rejection of Vera’s hypothesis.” Vera, for his part, rejects the rejection, arguing that, precisely because they ate so much grass, the aurochs and the wisents skewed the pollen record. “That is a scientific debate that is still going on,” he told me.”||*||

Animal Images in Chauvet Cave

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Chauvet cave lions
The paintings in the Chauvet Cave complex, which date back to around 39,000 year ago, include images of herds of hooked-horned aurochs (wild oxen), ibex, running deer, charging wooly rhinoceros, prowling lions, rearing thick-maned horses, wooly mammoths, open-mouthed bears and animals that are usually associated with Africa not Europe. In all, there are 442 animals, created over thousands of years, using nearly 400,000 square feet of cave surface. Some animals are solitary or concealed but most are in groups, some of which look like great mosaics or multiple movie frames.

Jean Clottes wrote in for The Metropolitan Museum of Art: “The dominant animals throughout the cave are lions, mammoths, and rhinoceroses. From the archaeological record, it is clear that these animals were rarely hunted; the images are thus not simple depictions of daily life at the time they were made. Along with cave bears (which were far larger than grizzly bears), the lions, mammoths, and rhinos account for 63 percent of the identified animals, a huge percentage compared to later periods of cave art. Horses, bison, ibex, reindeer, red deer, aurochs, Megaceros deer, musk-oxen, panther, and owl are also represented. An exceptional image of the lower body of a woman was found associated with a bison figure. Many images of large red dots are, indeed, partial handprints made with the palm of the hand. Red hand stencils and complete handprints have also been discovered. [Source: Jean Clottes, Independent Scholar. The Metropolitan Museum of Art,, October 2002]

Unlike other caves in France and Spain which show mostly hunted animals such as bisons and oxen, the animals in Chauvet cave are large powerful animals that generally weren't eaten for food: lions, cave bears, rhinos. A wooly rhino is shown charging a herd of other rhinos and clashing with one of its members. Among the 72 cave lions one is depicted "sniffing the hindquarters of a crouched and snarling companion." The cave contains the first prehistoric cave paintings of a spotted leopard, a musk oxen and an owl turning its had 180 degrees.

Joshua Hammer wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “Spread out over six chambers spanning 1,300 feet were panels of lionesses in pursuit of great herbivores—including aurochs, the now-extinct ancestors of domestic cattle, and bison; engravings of owls and woolly rhinoceroses; a charcoal portrait of four wild horses captured in individualized profile, and some 400 other images of beasts that had roamed the plains and valleys in huge numbers during the ice age. With a skill never before seen in cave art, the artists had used the knobs, recesses and other irregularities of the limestone to impart a sense of dynamism and three-dimensionality to their galloping, leaping creatures. Later, Jean-Marie Chauvet would marvel at the “remarkable realism” and “aesthetic mastery” of the artworks they encountered that day. [Source: Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian Magazine, April 2015 ]

On the paintings that he found particularly striking or moving,the German filmmaker Werner Herzog said, “the Panel of the Horses and the Panel of the Lions, of course. The lions in particular are just incredible because a whole group of lions is looking, is stalking something. The intensity of their gaze, all looking exactly at something, focusing on something. You don't know exactly on what they focus and it has an intensity of art, of depiction, which is just awesome.” [Source: Archaeology magazine, March/April 2011]

Saber-Toothed Cat May Have Lived in Europe the Same Time as Early Humans


In 2017, scientists announced that a sabertooth cat called Homotherium latidens lived in Europe 50,000 years ago, and there was a good chance it crossed paths with modern humans there. Michelle Z. Donahue wrote for National Geographic: “Painstaking genetic analysis of a jawbone dredged up from the bottom of the North Sea has now confirmed the theory that the so-called scimitar cat Homotherium latidens lived in Europe much longer than previously believed. Until recently, the earliest fossil of a Homotherium in the region dated to about 300,000 years ago, and many paleontologists had assumed that’s when the large cat went locally extinct. But in 2002, radiocarbon dating of the North Sea jawbone suggested that the species was still prowling around Europe as early as 28,000 years ago—and the new DNA work backs up that estimate. [Source: Michelle Z. Donahue, National Geographic, October 19, 2017 \=/]

“Scientists were also able to reconstruct highly detailed mitochondrial genomes from a North American branch of Homotherium and from a completely separate species, Smilodon populator—the animal many people (wrongly) know as a saber-toothed tiger. The new work shows that both Homotherium and Smilodon share a common ancestor with all cats living today, one that lived around 20 million years ago. \=/

“The work revealed so few differences between European and North American Homotherium DNA that the groups should probably be considered part of the same species, Paijmans says. Until now, they’d been classified as two species because of slight variations in bones from different locations. The research also adds new clues to why Homotherium ultimately vanished. Given the revised time frame, it’s likely that the scimitar cat was yet another victim of the extinction event that wiped out other Ice Age megafauna, including the woolly mammoth and the cave bear. \=/

Cave Hyena

cave hyena

According to Prehistoric Fauna: “The cave hyena (Crocuta crocuta spelaea) is an extinct subspecies of spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) native to Eurasia, ranging from northern China to Spain and into the British Isles. Though originally described as a separate species from the spotted hyena due to large differences in fore and hind extremities, genetic analysis indicates no sizeable differences in DNA between Pleistocene cave hyena and modern day spotted hyena populations. It is known from a range of fossils and prehistoric cave art. With the decline of grasslands 12,500 years ago, Europe experienced a massive loss of lowland habitats favoured by cave hyenas, and a corresponding increase in mixed woodlands.The main distinction between the spotted hyena and the cave hyena is grounded on different lengths of the hind and fore limb bones. They have been estimated to have weighed 102 kg. Little is known of their social habits. Their use of caves as dens is widely accepted, although sites in the open-air are also known. Indications of whether cave hyenas lived in large clans or on a more solitary basis is lacking, though large clans are not considered likely in their Pleistocene habitat. [Source: Roman Uchytel’s Prehistoric Fauna]

In the mid 2010s a well-preserved partial skeleton of a cave hyena was found at Los Aprendices Cave, a 143,000-38,000 year old site in northern Spain, along the remains of several other mammals including ibex, rabbit, rodent, and desman, [Source: Brian Switek, Scientific American, April 20, 2017 ||=||]

Brian Switek wrote in Scientific American: “Despite the fact that cave hyenas were relatively common in Ice Age Europe, their skeletons are considered rare. Their bones were often broken and scattered, sometimes because the living hyenas scavenged the dead. So even though previous research has revealed that the form of this ancient mammal was similar to that of today’s spotted hyena, any new cave hyena skeleton offers a new point of comparison between the present and not-too-distant past.” ||=||

This particular hyena, Victor Sauqué and colleagues write, “is represented by 194 bones. That’s not bad at all, with the skull and limbs almost completely represented. And from those bones, the researchers estimated that this individual weighed about 227 pounds – quite a bit heftier than most spotted hyenas alive today. In fact, Sauqué and colleagues write, the cave hyena was “a heavier and more powerful animal” than its living relatives. A stockier build would have made it less skilled as a runner, but better able to drag large portions of carcasses back to dens to consume in relative peace. ||=||

“So was the Los Aprendices hyena just like a bulkier spotted hyena? That’s difficult to say. Ice Age cave hyenas and today’s spotted hyenas were close relatives, with some experts allocating the cave hyenas to a subspecies of spotted hyena. Yet Sauqué and colleagues point out differences in size, jaw anatomy, and possibly behavior that might separate the two forms. ||=||

“Cave hyenas are thought to have been major bone accumulators during the Ice Age whereas today’s spotted hyenas don’t engage in the behavior nearly as often. A recent study on fossil hyena brains, likewise, suggest that the smarts of today’s spotted hyenas was a relatively recent evolutionary event and may have further distinguished today’s populations from the cave hyenas. Regardless of how the systematics shake out, however, Europe’s Ice Age hyenas were undoubtedly impressive beasts, and we can thank them for helping to create a record of Pleistocene life through their leftovers.” ||=||

Cave Lion

Cave lions

The cave lion is a subspecies of lion that disappeared around 12,400 years ago. It was one of the largest subspecies of a lion to have ever existed, about percent larger than modern lions, scientists say. It is often depicted in cave paintings as having some kind of collar fluff and possibly stripes but there is form evidence that it really possessed these things.. [Source: Bob Strauss,, updated April 8, 2018 ^*^]

Bob Strauss wrote in , the Cave Lion (Panthera leo spelaea) is technically classified as a subspecies of Panthera leo, the modern lion. This was discovered by a genetic sequencing of the cave lion's fossil remains. Essentially, this was a plus-sized cat that roamed the vast expanse of Eurasia. It feasted on a wide array of mammalian megafauna including prehistoric horses, cave bears and prehistoric elephants. The cave lion received its name not because it lived in caves, but because numerous intact skeletons have been found in Cave Bear habitats, suggesting that cave lions preyed opportunistically on hibernating cave bears. ^*^

“As is the case with many prehistoric predators, it's unclear why the cave lion vanished off the face of the earth about 2,000 years ago. It's possible that it was hunted to extinction by the early human settlers of Eurasia, who would have had a vested interest in banding together and eliminating any cave lions in the immediate vicinity. These same humans regarded the cave lion with reverence and awe, as evidenced by numerous cave paintings. But it's more likely that the cave lion succumbed to a combination of climate change and the disappearance of its usual prey; after all, small bands of Homo sapiens could more easily over-hunt prehistoric deer, pigs and another mammalian megafauna than these huge, fanged predators. ^*^

In October 2015, researchers in Siberia made an astonishing discovery: a group of frozen cave lion kittens, dating to about 10,000 B.C. One of them still had its fur intact. While it's not uncommon for explorers to stumble across quick-frozen wooly mammoths, this is the first time a prehistoric cat has been found in permafrost. It opens up entirely new avenues of investigation into life during the late Pleistocene epoch: for instance, laboratory technicians may be able to analyze the mother's milk recently ingested by the kittens and thus discern their mother's diet. It also may be possible to recover fragments of DNA from the cave kittens' soft tissues, which could, conceivably, one day facilitate the "de-extinction" of Panthera leo spelaea.” ^*^

Reindeer and Caribou

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Megaloceros from Lascaux Cave
Reindeer and caribou are the same animal ( Rangifer tarandus). The main difference is that reindeer are domesticated and found in Scandinavia and Siberia and caribou are wild and found in North America. There are two main kinds of caribou: woodland caribou and barren ground caribou (about a third smaller than woodlands caribou). Mountain reindeer are found in the ranges of Russia and northern Europe. [Source: "Man on Earth" by John Reader, Perenial Library, Harper and Row, "Nomads" 99-108]

The reindeer that live today are prety much the same as those that lived in Paleolithic times. Male reindeer and caribou are called bulls (or stags in some places). Females are called cows and youngsters, calves. Males often have whites clumps of hair that hang from their throats. Caribou and reindeer live primarily in the Arctic tundra, where the temperature average 23 degrees F throughout the year and can drop as low -76 degrees F. They are thought to have originated in North America. Up until 12,000 years ago they shared the Arctic tundra with wooly mammoths and mastodons.

Caribou and reindeer are the world's most widely distributed large land animals. As of the 1990s there were four million wild caribous in 200 herds: 102 in North America, 55 in Europe, 24 in Asia and 3 introduced herds on South Georgia Island in the southern Atlantic. Three fourths of these animals occur in just nine herds (eight in North America and one in Russia). In Alaska, there is a single herd with 600,000 caribou.

Woodlands caribou used to live as far south as Minnesota and Maine in the United States. Attempts to reintroduce them to these places have been thwarted in some places by a snail-bourne meningeal worm carried by white tail deer, who roam all over the United States. This parasite is relatively harmless to them but eats at the brain of caribou, moose, elk and other kinds of deer

Reindeer and Humans

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Lascaux horse

Mankind is believed to have stalked and hunted reindeer herds for at least 270,000 years. Archeological digs have revealed that Neanderthals ate reindeer for food 40,000 years. Images of reindeer have been found on 15,000-year-old cave paintings.

Reindeer were domesticated from wild reindeer (caribou) in northern Eurasia. When this took place is unknown. Reindeer are believed to have been domesticated between 5,000 and 7,000 years ago. Two forms of reindeer husbandry evolved. One on the open tundra where reindeer are gathered into large herds and moved between winter and summer pastures and other in the forest, where the animals are more difficult to supervise and herders manage smaller herds and supplements their diet with fish and other game.

Reindeer are difficult animals to ride but they can be harnessed and used to pull sleds or sledges. If you try to ride a reindeer, sit on the shoulders. If you sit on the back the animal will collapse under you. In Arctic regions and places with snow on the ground for long periods of time, reindeer are used to pull sleighs. They are strong enough to pulls sleighs with loads of 140 kilograms over frozen ground or snow for nine or ten miles an hour for several hours. Castrated reindeer are used as draft animals. Reindeer are often more efficient as transport animals in rugged country than horses.

Clothing, blanket, harnesses and other items are made from reindeer hide. Tight sinews are used for thread. Early autumn skins are prized for inter parkers consisting of an inner parka with the hair inside and an outer parka with the hair outside. Eskimos wore caribou-skin loincloths and caribou-skin socks with hair inside and caribou-skin boots with hair outside.

Reindeer are raised mainly for meat, hides, transportation and ability to pull loaded sleds. They are not good milk producers. While their milk is sweet ad creamy it is low in butterfat. Plus, a female reindeer produces only a pint of milk a day at most. White reindeer are greatly prized. They are regarded as a sign of wealth.

Clovis People Hunted Canadian Camels 13,000 Years Ago

Bruce Dorminey wrote in “In a southwestern corner of what is now Alberta, Canada, camels once roamed. They went extinct at the end the last Ice Age, and their disappearance has generally been attributed to changes in climate and vegetation. But new research suggests that human predators may have contributed to the Western camel’s (Camelops hesternus) demise. A paper in American Antiquity shows that, at a time when ice sheets still covered most of northern Canada, Clovis people on the Western plains were hunting camel for food. “Our evidence shows that we have to consider that humans may have had some role in their extinction,” said Brian Kooyman, an archeologist at the University of Calgary, and the paper’s lead author. [Source: Bruce Dorminey, March 13, 2012 ^|^]

“The study makes the first direct association between Clovis projectile points, stone tools and the remains of a butchered camel. The remains, which radiocarbon dating showed to be about 13,000 years old, were found preserved in windblown sand and silts at Wally’s Beach, an archeological site 108 miles south of Calgary. “Tracks indicate that they were the second-most common animal at Wally’s Beach and a common part of the fauna,” said Len Hills, a geoscientist at the University of Calgary and collaborator on the study. “Abundant camel tracks at the site clearly show a substantial population.” ^|^

“Kooyman says this particular camel was likely killed with spears after being ambushed at the top of an embankment leading into a river valley. Hunters may have hidden in nearby shrubs before isolating the animal from the herd. The hunters then chopped their prey into units of eight vertebrae each, while severing and snapping the camel’s torso into sides of ribs. ^|^

“But did camels make up a significant part of these people’s diet? “This is the only site where we have proof of camel use,” said Kooyman. “So far at the site, we have seven killed horses and one camel, so here it is likely they made up about one-eighth of the meat diet.” At present, there is no evidence that the hunters ever spared the animals in an effort to harness them as pack animals or for human transport, nor that they ever used the camels for anything other than food. But as Kooyman notes, it’s likely these early hunters would have used camel hides for clothing, since life on these post-glacial plains would still have been windy and cold.” ^|^

Aurochs, A Favorite Stone Age Meat Source

Aurochs, wild Eurasian oxen with large curved horns, were larger than their descendants, modern domesticated cattle. They were a favored meat source. Some of the early people that ate its first consumed the bone marrow and then the ribs. Jennifer Viegas wrote in Discover News: ““Aurochs must have been good eats for Stone Age human meat lovers, since other prehistoric evidence also points to hunting, butchering and feasting on these animals. A few German sites have yielded aurochs bones next to flint tool artifacts. Aurochs bones have also been excavated at early dwellings throughout Europe. [Source: Jennifer Viegas, Discover News, June 27, 2011 ***] “Bones for red deer, roe deer, wild boar and elk were even more common, perhaps because the aurochs was such a large, imposing animal and the hunters weren't always successful at killing it. At a Mesolithic site in Onnarp, Sweden, for example, scientists found the remains of aurochs that had been shot with arrows. The wounded animals escaped their pursuers before later dying in a swamp. ***

Today there are over 1.5 billion cows in the world and all — or at least nearly all — of them are believed to be descended from the aurochs. Members of the even-toed ungulate family and cousins of buffalo, musk oxen, wild oxen and yaks, aurochs were huge animals, standing two meters at the shoulder, with long horns. Bulls were black with a white stripe running down their back. Cows were slightly smaller and reddish brown in color. Domesticated cattle are much smaller than aurochs.

Decline and Extinction of Aurochs

aurochs in ancient cave art
Aurochs ranged across Asia, Europe and parts of the Middle East. Early men hunted them and depicted them in 30,000-year-old rock paintings. Their bones have been found at many early human settlements. Small shrines made from their horns were erected in 8,000-year-old settlements in Turkey. They endured until the 17th century when were made extinct by hunting and deforestation. The last auroch died in Poland's Jactorowka Forest in 1627. Wietske Prummel, an associate professor of archaeozoology at the University of Groningen, told Discovery News: "It became extinct due to the destruction of the habitat of the aurochs since the arrival of the first farmers in Europe about 7,500 years ago. These farmers used the area inhabited by aurochs for their dwellings, arable fields and meadows. The aurochs gradually lost suitable habitat."

Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in The New Yorker: “ Aurochs were considerably more impressive beasts than domesticated cattle. Julius Caesar described them as being just “a little below the elephant in size,” with “strength and speed” that was “extraordinary.” (It is unlikely that he ever actually saw one.) More recent estimates suggest that males were nearly six feet high at the withers and females five feet. By Roman times, humans had so diminished the aurochs’ numbers that the animals were missing from most of their former habitat. [Source: Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker , December 24 & 31, 2012 ||*||]

“By the fifteen-hundreds, the only place they could still be found in the wild was in the Polish Royal Forests, west of Warsaw. The animals there were understood to be extremely rare, and special gamekeepers were hired to protect them. But their numbers continued to dwindle. In 1557, some fifty aurochs were counted. Forty years later, only half that many remained, and by 1620 only one aurochs—a female—was left. She died in 1627. The aurochs thus earned, as the Dutch writer Cis Van Vuure has put it, “the dubious honor of being the first documented case of extinction.” (The next case was the dodo, four decades later.)” ||*||

Heck Cattle: a Nazi Effort to Bring Aurochs Backs

auroch bones
Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in The New Yorker: “The aurochs was essentially forgotten until the early twentieth century, when a spate of scientific papers on the animal appeared. In the nineteen-twenties, two German brothers, Heinz and Lutz Heck, both zoo directors, decided to try to breed back the aurochs, using the genetic material that had been preserved in domesticated cattle. This was, of course, long before DNA testing—or even the discovery of DNA. To guide their efforts, the brothers mainly relied on old pictures of aurochs, many of them drawn by people with no firsthand knowledge of the animal. The brothers chose different kinds of cows for their breeding efforts: Heinz, who directed the zoo in Munich, crossed, among other breeds, Scottish Highland cattle and German Anglers, while Lutz, the director of the Berlin Zoo, mixed Spanish fighting cattle with Corsican and Camargue cattle. Nevertheless, the two claimed that their efforts had produced similar results, which, they argued, proved that “the fundamental principle of breeding back was correct.” Even though he continued to crossbreed his crossbreeds, Heinz decided that the project had been successfully completed. “The wild bull, the aurochs, lives again,” he wrote. [Source: Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker , December 24 & 31, 2012 ||*||]

“Not long afterward, the project became tangled up in German politics. In 1938, Lutz, a committed Nazi, was appointed to the Third Reich’s Forest Authority. His idea of breeding back the aurochs dovetailed neatly with the Nazis’ scheme of restoring Europe, through selective human breeding, to its mythic, Aryan past. Lutz sent some of his “aurochs” to the Rominten Heath, in East Prussia—now Poland—where Hermann Göring had his favorite hunting lodge. Other Heck-bred cows were installed on the grounds of Göring’s estate north of Berlin. Most—perhaps all—of these animals were killed toward the end of the Second World War. (According to Clemens Driessen, a Dutch academic who has studied the Heck brothers, Göring personally shot some of the cattle on his estate as the Soviets bore down on Berlin.) But some Heck cattle at the Munich zoo and in parks in Augsburg, Münster, and Duisburg survived. ||*||

“Over the years, even as Heck cattle have been raised, uneventfully, in once Nazi-occupied nations like the Netherlands—it’s the descendants of the Munich-bred cows that now graze the Oostvaardersplassen—they’ve never managed to shake their Fascist associations. Many regard them as a sort of veterinary version of the “Hitler Diaries”—half horror, half joke. Not long ago, when a British farmer imported some Heck cattle from Belgium, the story made national news. |“NAZI ‘SUPER-COWS’ SHIPPED TO DEVON FARM,” the Guardian reported. “THE HERD REICH,” ran the headline in the Sun. ||*||

TaurOs; A Modern Effort to Bring Aurochs Back

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Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in The New Yorker: “As more aurochs remains have been unearthed and more sophisticated research has been done on them, it’s become clear that the Heck brothers’ creation is a far cry from the original—Heck cattle are too small, their horns have the wrong shape, and the proportions of their bodies are off. All of which has led to a new, de-Nazified effort to back-breed the aurochs. This project is based in the Dutch city of Nijmegen, about fifty miles southeast of Amsterdam, and is entirely independent of the Oostvaardersplassen. Still, it reflects much the same can-do, “what is lost is not lost forever” approach to conservation. So while I was in the Netherlands I decided to go for a visit. [Source: Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker , December 24 & 31, 2012 ||*||]

Henri “Kerkdijk pointed to two black bulls bent over a patch of grass. The first was called Manolo Uno. He was two years old and not yet fully grown, but already he measured almost five feet at the withers. He had a grayish muzzle, a light stripe down his back, and forward-tilting horns that reminded me of Ferdinand’s. I have no idea how closely he resembled an actual aurochs; certainly, though, he seemed a very imposing beast, larger and more menacing-looking than the Heck cattle at the Oostvaardersplassen. The second bull, Rocky, was a year younger than Manolo but almost as big. This Kerkdijk took as a particularly promising sign. “That one’s going to be really tall,” he said.” ||*||

In 2008, “Kerkdijk teamed up with an environmental consultant named Ronald Goderie to start the TaurOs program, the stated goal of which is to give “the rebuilding of the aurochs a serious try.” (In a recent write-up of the effort, the two men dismiss Heck cattle as “considered by experts to be a failure.”) At the point that I met with them, the project had generated nearly a hundred calves, of which Manolo Uno and Rocky had been deemed the most aurochs-like. To create the calves, Kerkdijk and Goderie had crossed several so-called primitive cattle breeds—varieties developed hundreds, even thousands, of years ago, and therefore more likely to retain aurochs-like features. Manolo, for example, represents a cross between an Italian breed known as Maremmana primitivo and a Spanish breed known as Pajuna. At two, he was old enough to be crossbred himself. But he had refused to part with any of his semen for the purpose of artificial insemination, a demurral that Kerkdijk took as evidence of his virility and a further positive sign. ||*||

“Ninety years after the Heck brothers’ attempt, the basic idea behind back-breeding remains pretty much the same. If different breeds of primitive cattle preserve different stretches of the aurochs’s genetic material, then reassembling those stretches should produce something close to—though not exactly like—the original. (Kerkdijk and Goderie have decided that their new animal should be called not an aurochs but a “tauros.”) Scientists in England and Ireland have succeeded in sequencing a small subset of the aurochs’s DNA—its mitochondrial DNA—using a seven-thousand-year-old bone that was found in a cave in Derbyshire. Other scientists have been approached about sequencing the entire genome. When—or, really, if—this work is completed, it should be possible to gauge how close a calf comes to an authentic aurochs by analyzing a blood sample or a bit of saliva. ||*||

“According to the timetable Kerkdijk and Goderie have drawn up, herds of “tauroses” should be ready by around 2025. By that point, the two expect that large tracts of Europe will have been rewilded, and the animals will be allowed to roam across them. How the intervening years’ worth of breeding and crossbreeding and genetic evaluation will be funded remains a bit murky. Currently, the project is supported in part by renting cows to nature parks and in part by butchering them. The meat is marketed as “wild beef,” and it commands a premium in Amsterdam, where it is available only to customers who sign up for delivery in advance. Kerkdijk said that “wild beef” sales had risen dramatically over the last year or so, owing to interest in the tauros. I asked if I could try some.” ||*||

Plants Grown from Fruit Stashed Away 30,000 Years Ago by Squirrels

Scientists in Russia have grown plants from fruit — found in the banks of the Kolyma River in Siberia, a top site for people looking for mammoth bones — stored away in permafrost by squirrels over 30,000 years ago. Richard Black of the BBC reported: “The Institute of Cell Biophysics team raised plants of Silene stenophylla – of the campion family – from the fruit. Writing in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), they note this is the oldest plant material by far to have been brought to life. Prior to this, the record lay with date palm seeds stored for 2,000 years at Masada in Israel. [Source: Richard Black, BBC News, February 20, 2012 |::|]

“The leader of the research team, Professor David Gilichinsky, died a few days before his paper was published. In it, he and his colleagues describe finding about 70 squirrel hibernation burrows in the river bank. “All burrows were found at depths of 20-40 million from the present day surface and located in layers containing bones of large mammals such as mammoth, woolly rhinoceros, bison, horse, deer, and other representatives of fauna from the age of mammoths, as well as plant remains,” they write. “The presence of vertical ice wedges demonstrates that it has been continuously frozen and never thawed. Accordingly, the fossil burrows and their content have never been defrosted since burial and simultaneous freezing.” |::|

“The squirrels appear to have stashed their store in the coldest part of their burrow, which subsequently froze permanently, presumably due to a cooling of the local climate. The fruits grew into healthy plants, though subtly different from modern examples of the species Back in the lab, near Moscow, the team’s attempts to germinate mature seeds failed. Eventually they found success using elements of the fruit itself, which they refer to as “placental tissue” and propagated in laboratory dishes. “This is by far the most extraordinary example of extreme longevity for material from higher plants,” commented Robin Probert, head of conservation and technology at the UK’s Millennium Seed Bank. “I’m not surprised that it’s been possible to find living material as old as this, and this is exactly where we would go looking, in permafrost and these fossilised rodent burrows with their caches of seeds. “But it is a surprise to me that they’re finding viable material from this placental tissue rather than mature seeds. |::|

“The Russian team’s theory is that the tissue cells are full of sucrose that would have formed food for the growing plants. Sugars are preservatives; they are even being researched as a way of keeping vaccines fresh in the hot climates of Africa without the need for refrigeration. So it may be that the sugar-rich cells were able to survive in a potentially viable state for so long. |::|

“Silene stenophylla still grows on the Siberian tundra; and when the researchers compared modern-day plants against their resurrected cousins, they found subtle differences in the shape of petals and the sex of flowers, for reasons that are not evident. The scientists suggest in their PNAS paper that research of this kind can help in studies of evolution, and shed light on environmental conditions in past millennia. But perhaps the most enticing suggestion is that it might be possible, using the same techniques, to raise plants that are now extinct – provided that Arctic ground squirrels or some other creatures secreted away the fruit and seeds. “We’d predict that seeds would stay viable for thousands, possibly tens of thousands of years – I don’t think anyone would expect hundreds of thousands of years,” said Dr Probert. “[So] there is an opportunity to resurrect flowering plants that have gone extinct in the same way that we talk about bringing mammoths back to life, the Jurassic Park kind of idea.”“ |::|


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Altamira bison
Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in The New Yorker: Rewilding is a movement that “takes the old notion of wilderness and turns it inside out. Perhaps it’s true that genuine wildernesses can only be destroyed, but new “wilderness,” what the Dutch call “new nature,” can be created. Every year, tens of thousands of acres of economically marginal farmland in Europe are taken out of production. Why not use this land to produce “new nature” to replace what’s been lost? The same basic idea could, of course, be applied outside of Europe—it’s been proposed, for example, that depopulated expanses of the American Midwest are also candidates for rewilding. [Source: Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker , December 24 & 31, 2012 ||*||]

“Like so much in Europe today, the term “rewilding” is an American import. It was coined in the nineteen-nineties, and first proposed as a conservation strategy by two biologists, Michael Soulé, now a professor emeritus at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and Reed Noss, a research professor at the University of Central Florida. According to Soulé and Noss, the problem with most conservation plans was that they aimed to protect what exists. Yet what exists is often just a shadow of what once was. In most of the United States, large predators like wolves and cougars have been wiped out.

Without top predators, the two argued, ecosystems no longer really function as systems. “A cynic might describe rewilding as an atavistic obsession,” they wrote. “A more sympathetic critic might label it romantic. We contend, however, that rewilding is simply scientific realism.” According to Soulé and Noss, rewilding demanded, in addition to predators, the establishment of large, strictly protected “core” reserves, and migratory corridors linking one to the next. They summarized their formula as “the three C’s: cores, corridors, and carnivores.” These ideas are now considered mainstream by conservation biologists, even those who would not necessarily describe themselves as proponents of rewilding.” ||*||

Oostvaardersplassen, the Netherlands’s Rewilding Experiment

Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in The New Yorker: “Flevoland, which sits more or less in the center of the Netherlands, half an hour from Amsterdam, is the country’s newest province, a status that is partly administrative and partly existential. For most of the past several millennia, Flevoland lay at the bottom of an inlet of the North Sea. In the nineteen-thirties, a massive network of dams transformed the inlet into a freshwater lake, and in the nineteen-fifties a drainage project, which was very nearly as massive, allowed Flevoland to emerge out of the muck of the former seafloor. The province’s coat of arms, drawn up when it was incorporated, in the nineteen-eighties, features a beast that has the head of a lion and the tail of a mermaid. [Source: Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker , December 24 & 31, 2012 ||*||]

“Flevoland has some of Europe’s richest farmland; its long, narrow fields are planted with potatoes and sugar beets and barley. On each side of the province is a city that has been built from scratch: Almere in the west and Lelystad in the east. In between lies a wilderness that was also constructed, Genesis-like, from the mud. ||*||

“Known as the Oostvaardersplassen, a name that is pretty much unpronounceable for English-speakers, the reserve occupies fifteen thousand almost perfectly flat acres on the shore of the inlet-turned-lake. This area was originally designated for industry; however, while it was still in the process of drying out, a handful of biologists convinced the Dutch government that they had a better idea. The newest land in Europe could be used to create a Paleolithic landscape. The biologists set about stocking the Oostvaardersplassen with the sorts of animals that would have inhabited the region in prehistoric times—had it not at that point been underwater. In many cases, the animals had been exterminated, so they had to settle for the next best thing. ||*||

“For example, in place of the aurochs, a large and now extinct bovine, they brought in Heck cattle, a variety specially bred by Nazi scientists. (More on the Nazis later.) The cattle grazed and multiplied. So did the red deer, which were trucked in from Scotland, and the horses, which were imported from Poland, and the foxes and the geese and the egrets. In fact, the large mammals reproduced so prolifically that they formed what could, with a certain amount of squinting, be said to resemble the great migratory herds of Africa; the German magazine Der Spiegel has called the Oostvaardersplassen “the Serengeti behind the dikes.” Visitors now pay up to forty-five dollars each to take safari-like tours of the park. These are especially popular in the fall, during rutting season.” ||*||

“I visited the Oostvaardersplassen during a stretch of very blue days in early fall....A stiff breeze was blowing, as it almost always does near the North Sea. We passed a marshy area covered in reeds, which nodded in the wind. Ducks bobbed in a pond. Farther on, where the land grew drier, the reeds gave way to grass. We passed a herd of red deer and some aurochs wannabes, and the carcass of a deer, which had been picked almost clean by foxes and ravens. Eventually, we came to a herd of about a thousand wild—or, at least, feral—horses. They whinnied and cantered and shook their heads. The horses were an almost uniform buff color, and the breeze lifted their manes, which were dark brown. We all piled out of the vans. The horses seemed not to notice us, though we were just a few yards away....Like the rest of Flevoland, the Oostvaardersplassen lies about fifteen feet below sea level and is protected from flooding by a series of thick earthen dikes. As a result, when you are standing in the park, the lake, known as the Markermeer, is above you, which produces the vertiginous sense of a world upside down. In the lovely weather, the Markermeer was filled with sailboats; these seemed to be hovering above the horizon, like zeppelins. ||*||

Frans Vera, the Man Who Brought Rewilding to Life

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Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in The New Yorker: “If one person could be said to be responsible for the Oostvaardersplassen, it is an ecologist named Frans Vera. Vera, who is sixty-three, has gray hair, a gray beard, and a cheerfully combative manner. He spent most of his adult life working for one or another branch of the Dutch government and now works for a private foundation, of which, as far as I could tell, he is the sole employee. [Source: Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker , December 24 & 31, 2012 ||*||]

“Vera explained that he first became interested in the Oostvaardersplassen in the late nineteen-seventies. At that point, he had just graduated from university, in Amsterdam, and was unemployed. He read an article about some Greylag geese that had appeared in the reclaimed area, which was then a boggy no man’s land. The geese kept the vegetation low by chomping on it, and in this way maintained their marshy habitat. Vera was an avid bird-watcher, and the story intrigued him. He wrote his own article, arguing that the place ought to be turned into a nature preserve. Soon afterward, he got a job with the Dutch forestry agency. ||*||

“In the late seventies, the prevailing view in the Netherlands was—and, to a certain extent, it still is—that nature was something to be managed, like a farm. According to this view, a preserve needed to be planted, pruned, and mowed, and the bigger the preserve, the more intervention was required. Vera chafed at this notion. The problem, he decided, was that Europe’s large grazers had been hunted to oblivion. ||*||

If they could be restored, then nature could take care of itself. This theory, coming from a very junior civil servant, was not particularly popular. “Mostly there’s no trouble as long as you are within the borders of an accepted paradigm,” Vera told me. “But be aware when you start to discuss the paradigm. Then it starts to be only twenty-five per cent discussion of facts and seventy-five per cent psychology. The thing I most often heard was, ‘Who do you think you are?’ ” Undaunted, Vera kept pushing.

Animals in Oostvaardersplassen

Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in The New Yorker: Vera “had a few allies at various government ministries, and one of them arranged for him to get the money to buy some Heck cattle. In 1983, while the future of the Oostvaardersplassen was still being debated, Vera acquired the cows from Germany, although he had not yet secured permission from the governing authorities to release them. [Source: Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker , December 24 & 31, 2012 ||*||]

““I bought them and I was standing here with the trucks,” he recalled happily. “And they were so angry!” This first group of Heck cattle was not allowed onto the site, but a second group, acquired some months later, was let in. The following year, Vera bought forty Konik horses from Poland. Koniks are believed to be descended from tarpans, one of the world’s last subspecies of truly wild horse, which survived in Eastern Europe into the nineteenth century. (Practically all the horses that are called “wild” today are, in fact, the offspring of domesticated horses that were, at some point or another, let loose.) Red deer, which are closely related to what Americans call elk, were brought in during the nineteen-nineties. ||*||

“Meanwhile, other animals were finding their way to the Oostvaardersplassen on their own. Foxes arrived, as did muskrats, which in Europe count as an invasive species. Buzzards and goshawks and gray herons and kingfishers and kestrels turned up. A pair of very large white-tailed eagles swooped in and built their nest in an improbably small tree. In 2005, a rare black vulture appeared, but after a few months in residence it wandered onto the railroad tracks, where it was hit by a train. (The rail line runs along the southern edge of the preserve.) Vera’s dream is that one day the Oostvaardersplassen will be connected to other nature reserves in the Netherlands—a plan that has been partly but never fully funded—and that this will, in turn, allow it to attract wolves. Wolves were extirpated from most of Western Europe more than a century ago, but, owing to stringent protections put in place over the past few decades, they have recently been making a comeback in countries like Germany and France. (Two packs, with about ten wolves each, now live within forty miles of Berlin.) Last year, a wolf believed to be the first seen in Holland since the eighteen-sixties was spotted about seventy miles southeast of the Oostvaardersplassen, in the town of Duiven. That is probably unimaginable for people in the United States—having wolves in the Netherlands,” Vera said. “But it is the future.”“ ||*||

In the preserve: “So effectively have the cows and the horses and the deer kept the place grazed that there was barely a bush to be seen—just acre after very flat acre of clipped grass, like a bowling green. We passed a few groups of deer and a fox that looked back at us with pale, glittering eyes. Vera stopped the truck at a lookout built on stilts. We climbed up a narrow ladder. “This is a window that shows us how the Netherlands looked thousands of years ago,” he said, gesturing at the grassland below. ||*||

“We drove on, and stopped to take a look at the nest built by the white-tailed eagles, another animal that only very narrowly avoided extinction. The eagles showed up in the Oostvaardersplassen in 2006, and became the first pair to breed in the Netherlands since the Middle Ages. Their nest—empty at the time of my visit—was an extraordinary structure, made out of sticks and nearly the size of an armchair. It seemed ready to topple the scrawny tree it was perched in. Vera was particularly pleased with the eagles, because several ornithologists had told him the birds would nest only in very tall, mature trees, of which the Oostvaardersplassen has none. ||*||

Culling and Oostvaardersplassen Animals Fending for Themselves

Chaevet horses

Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in The New Yorker: “Access to the Oostvaardersplassen by humans is strictly controlled, and that morning neither of the film crews was there and no tours were out, so Vera and the animals and I pretty much had the place to ourselves. The quiet was interrupted only by the squawking of the geese and the clatter of an occasional train. We continued west, skirting a herd of red deer. A dead horse was lying in the middle of the herd. Its chest was bloated, and there was a large dark hole where its anus once had been. Vera speculated that it had been made by foxes trying to get at the horse’s entrails. [Source: Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker , December 24 & 31, 2012 ||*||]

“Like genuinely wild animals, those in the Oostvaardersplassen are expected to fend for themselves. They are not fed or bred or vaccinated. Also like wild animals, they often die for lack of resources; for the large herbivores in the reserve, the mortality rate can approach forty per cent a year. From a public-relations point of view, this is far and away the most controversial aspect of Vera’s scheme. When the weather is harsh, there’s widespread starvation in the preserve, which provides gruesome images for Dutch TV. Often the dying animals are shown huddled up against the fences of the Oostvaardersplassen, a scene that invariably leads to comparisons with the Holocaust. ||*||

in the winter of 2010, an unusually cold one in northern Europe, a Dutch news program aired a segment on the Oostvaardersplassen that showed an emaciated deer stumbling into a half-frozen pond and drowning. A public outcry ensued, prompting an “emergency” debate in parliament. |“It’s an illusion to think we can go back to primordial times, dressed in bear furs and floating around in hollowed-out trees,” the M.P. who led the debate, Henk Jan Ormel, said. “The world of today looks very different, and we shouldn’t make the animals of the Oostvaardersplassen bear the burden of this.” “It became political,” Sip van Wieren, a professor of ecology at Wageningen University, told me. “Very political.”

“A second ICMO was convened. This one recommended a policy of “early reactive culling,” under which the animals that were deemed unlikely to survive the winter would be shot in the fall. How exactly the rangers at the Oostvaardersplassen were supposed to figure out in November which animals would be starving by February was left rather vague. When I visited, in September, the number of grazers in the park was at its annual peak, with more than three thousand deer, a thousand horses, and three hundred Heck cattle. Eventually, it is hoped, birth rates in the Oostvaardersplassen will decline, and the population will reach some kind of equilibrium, but in the meantime the shooting continues. Vera and I came upon a group of cows sunning themselves near a dead tree. They regarded us warily, through glassy black eyes. The adults looked fearfully robust, but some of the calves seemed a bit shaky; within a few months, I figured, they’d probably be carcasses. Vera told me that he viewed “early reactive culling” as an arrangement whose only real beneficiaries were humans; as far as the ungulates were concerned, he thought, starving to death was a very peaceful way to go. It only has to do with the acceptance of people,” he said, “and nothing, in my mind, to do with the suffering of animals.” ||*||

Pleistocene Rewilding

Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in The New Yorker: “In 2005, a dozen biologists took the concept of rewilding one step further. In an article published in the journal Nature, the group presented a plan for what it called “Pleistocene rewilding.” When humans arrived in North America, some thirteen thousand years ago, toward the end of the last ice age, they killed off most of the continent’s largest mammals, leaving key ecological roles unfilled. The Pleistocene rewilders proposed finding substitute animals that could serve in their place. For instance, African or Asian elephants could be let loose to make up for the long-lost woolly mammoth. Similarly, Bactrian camels, which are native to the steppes of Central Asia, could take up the slack left by the vanished North American Camelops. [Source: Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker , December 24 & 31, 2012 ||*||]

The authors—almost all of them were academics—envisioned a series of small-scale experiments leading up to the creation of “one or more ‘ecological history parks,’ ” which would cover “vast areas of economically depressed parts of the Great Plains.” In these huge “history parks,” elephants, camels, and African cheetahs—to replace the missing American cheetah—would roam freely. The ecologists called their plan “an optimistic alternative” to what was otherwise likely to be a future filled with “ever more pest-and-weed dominated landscapes” and “the extinction of most, if not all, large vertebrates.”

“The lead author of the Nature article, Josh Donlan, now runs a nonprofit group called Advanced Conservation Strategies and is a visiting fellow at Cornell. He characterized reactions to Pleistocene rewilding as “bimodal.” “People either loved it or hated it, both in the scientific community and in the public,” he told me. In the United States, Pleistocene rewilding never got very far; the only practical step that’s been taken has been the reintroduction to private land in New Mexico of a giant tortoise known as the Bolton tortoise. (The Bolton tortoise, which disappeared from what’s now the U.S. about eight thousand years ago, survived south of the border in very small numbers.) As it happened, though, a Russian scientist named Sergey Zimov had a similar idea. Also in 2005, he published an article in Science describing an experimental preserve in Siberia that he had set up and named the Pleistocene Park. Zimov’s aim was to show that the area, which ten thousand years or so ago supported great herds of large mammals, was still capable of doing so.” ||*||

Plans to Rewild Neglected Areas of Europe

Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in The New Yorker: “As Europeans have taken up the term, “rewilding” has shifted its meaning yet again. The concept has become at once less threatening and more gastronomically appealing: it is expected that visitors to the continent’s rewilded regions will be able to enjoy not just the safari-like tours but also the local cuisine. (One park in Portugal in the process of “rewilding” offers its own brand of olive oil.) ||*||

“Rewilding Europe, the group that is pushing the concept most vigorously, was founded three years ago by two Dutchmen, a Swede, and a Scot. One of the Dutchmen, Wouter Helmer, lives not far from the field where Manolo and Rocky are pastured, and the day after I visited the bulls I went to meet him at his house, which is at the edge of a park, in a small clearing that made me think of Goldilocks. [Source: Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker , December 24 & 31, 2012 ||*||] “Helmer explained that the goal of Rewilding Europe was, in effect, to create giant versions of the Oostvaardersplassen, each at least fifteen times as large. “Frans Vera always says, ‘If the Dutch can do it, everyone can do it,’ ” he told me. To get the project started, the group has raised more than six million euros—roughly seven and a half million dollars—much of it from the Dutch postcode lottery, which might be compared to the New York State lottery, except that the proceeds go to charity. Last year, after receiving twenty applications from organizations across the continent, the group chose five regions to serve as what it calls “model rewilding areas”—a part of the Danube Delta, spanning the border of Romania and Ukraine; an area in the southern Carpathian Mountains, also known as the Transylvanian Alps; and areas in the eastern Carpathians, the mountains of Croatia, and the western Iberian Peninsula.

One quality these areas share is that fewer and fewer people want to live in them. “There’s no economy in big parts of Europe,” Helmer told me. “We think it’s a window of opportunity.” The idea is to rewild the areas by connecting existing reserves with tracts of abandoned land and working farms whose owners can be persuaded to let a herd of aurochs (or tauroses) wander across their property. (The lure for landowners is supposed to be an influx of tourists, who will come and open their wallets.) ||*||

“Helmer stressed to me that Rewilding Europe was not particularly concerned about whether the new landscape that would be created would resemble the ancient one that had been altered or destroyed. “We’re not looking backward but forward,” he said at one point. “We try to avoid too much discussion of wilderness,” he observed at another. “For us, that is not the most important thing—at the end will this be a wilderness or not? It will be wilder than it was, and that’s what matters.” ||*||

Rewilding Europe “Model Area” in Spain

Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in The New Yorker: Diego “Benito runs a thirteen-hundred-acre nature preserve in far western Spain called the Campanarios de Azaba. The preserve is part of the Rewilding Europe “model area” in western Iberia, and of the five areas it’s the easiest to get to. Nevertheless, the trip there involves a four-hour drive from Madrid, through the provinces of Ávila and Salamanca.[Source: Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker , December 24 & 31, 2012 ||*||]

“Until fairly recently, the place had been a farm, and it was dotted with oak trees whose acorns had gone to fattening pigs. It was hot and dry as we crunched along through the underbrush. Even though I knew the nearest town wasn’t more than a few miles away, the terrain seemed empty enough to get lost in, and I was reminded of a time in the New Mexico desert when I’d read a trail map wrong and found myself walking in circles. We encountered some very handsome horses, which, Benito told me, belonged to a rare and ancient Spanish breed known as Retuertas. Farther on, we came to a fenced-in area filled with a network of small but clearly man-made tunnels. These, Benito explained, had been dug for the benefit of rabbits, which in Spain—and, indeed, throughout Europe—have been decimated by a disease known as myxomatosis. The myoma virus was purposefully introduced on a private estate in France as a rabbit-control measure in the nineteen-fifties and has since spread across the continent. (The loss of rabbits has led to a decline in animals that prey on rabbits, like the Iberian lynx, which is now considered to be critically endangered.)

“The fences were supposed to protect some reintroduced rabbits from foxes, but the rabbits had refused to stay put, so now the enclosures were empty. The same was true of a series of circular platforms that had been erected in some oak trees as nesting sites for black storks. The black storks hadn’t been interested in them. “You can’t be a hundred per cent sure of success, because wild animals are wild animals,” Benito told me. We went looking for some Sayaguesa cows that had recently been purchased with Rewilding Europe money, but they seemed to be avoiding us. Sayaguesas are another primitive breed of interest to the TaurOs program, an enterprise that Benito told me he was eager to get involved in. “If you want to sell a product, you have to have a story,” he said. ||*||

“That afternoon, after a lunch of local (and quite tasty) pork cutlets, we drove out of the reserve to the top of a nearby mountain. Along the way, we passed through a couple of villages that, Benito explained, were in the process of disappearing; the schools had closed for lack of children and only the old people remained. In one of the towns, La Encina, we stopped to meet the mayor, a slight, elderly man named José Maria. According to Maria, the number of residents in La Encina had dropped by more than fifty per cent in just the past fifteen years. He was enthusiastic about the idea of rewilding, he said, because it had “a lot of potential to bring tourists.” From the top of the mountain, we could see across to Portugal, some fifteen miles away. The valley was a patchwork of brown fields, pine forests that had been planted during the Franco era, and evenly spaced oaks of the sort I’d seen at the preserve. According to a brochure that Wouter Helmer had given me, the entire region was ripe for rewilding, owing to “rural depopulation”; the aim was to transform at least a thousand square kilometres, or two hundred and fifty thousand acres. I tried to imagine the whole valley converted into an Iberian version of the Oostvaardersplassen. Certainly it was a lot less populated than the outskirts of Amsterdam. Still, I realized, I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be envisioning. The pine plantations could never be considered wild: would they have to go? What about the pruned oaks, and the pigs that were still snuffling around them for acorns, and the brown fields, and all the tiny, dying towns waiting for an influx of tourists? ||*||

“One of the appeals of rewilding is that it represents a proactive agenda—as Josh Donlan and his Pleistocene rewilding colleagues put it, a hopeful alternative to just sitting around, mourning what’s been lost. In a rewilded world, even extinction need not be considered irrevocable; the aurochs will lie down with the lynx, and the deer and the elephants will roam. On a planet increasingly dominated by people—even the deep oceans today are being altered by humans—it probably makes sense to think about wilderness, too, as a human creation. The more I saw, the more I understood why Europeans, in particular, were attracted to the idea, and the more I wanted to be convinced that it could work. But, as I looked back toward the Campanarios de Azaba, I thought of the vacant rabbit tunnels and the empty platforms built for the storks, and I wasn’t at all sure. ||*||

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Nature, Scientific American. Live Science, Discover magazine, Discovery News, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, BBC, The Guardian, Reuters, AP, AFP and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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