Bringing back the big beasts: conservation for the 21st century?

04 April 2014

Portrait of Sally Stewart

by Sally Stewart
Communications and Media Manager

Sally joined the school in June 2013 following nine years as a journalist. She is responsible for publicising the aims, activities and achievements of the school and has extensive experience in digital and social media, and also in video and radio jo...

Megafauna blog

The idea of bringing back big beasts, or 'megafauna', is certainly an intriguing one. Many of its proponents, who recently gathered in Oxford for the first conference of its kind, are themselves larger than life characters, and are pushing forward ideas that could have huge impacts both on the environment and on society’s traditional notions of ‘conservation’. Take Sergey Zimov, for instance: the Russian scientist has already created his own ‘Pleistocene Park’ in the wilds of Siberia, introducing horses, bison, musk ox and deer where mammoths once roamed. Beth Shapiro’s work on ‘de-extinction’ of mammoths is a sure-fire headline-grabber, although the evolutionary molecular biologist says journalists are perennially disappointed when the reality is not as Jurassic Park-like as they had imagined.

So what’s the big idea with megafaunal rewilding? Recent studies have uncovered evidence that the loss of big beasts, be it on a global or continental scale, could have radically altered the way ecosystems work. A paper co-authored by Yadvinder Malhi of the Oxford Centre for Tropical Forests, an Oxford Martin School institute, asserted that the loss of creatures such as giant sloths and Amazonian elephants, which would range over large areas, would have severed major ‘arteries’ that distributed nutrients essential to the healthy function of ecosystems. Rewilding, it is said, could go some way to reconstructing those ecosystems. The conference, ‘Megafauna and Ecosystem Function: from the Pleistocene to the Anthropocene’, which took place from 18-20 March, investigated the causes of these extinctions, and the challenges and possibilities of restoring landscapes to their ‘natural’ state.

Shapiro, an Assistant Professor in the University of California's Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, outlined the difficulties of mammoth cloning. The easiest route, somatic cell nuclear transfer (the method used for Dolly the Sheep), is a no-go due to a lack of intact cells, and the natural alternative, DNA sequencing, is fraught with the contamination that comes with digging up an ancient skeleton (a bone sample extracted from permafrost might yield only 50 per cent mammoth DNA). Plan C, she said, involved ‘genome editing’: chopping up the genome of something similar to a mammoth - an Asian elephant, for example - and inserting mammoth DNA to produce mammoth-like attributes. What has made this possible is the recent invention of the CRISPR technique, which enables scientists to target the correct parts of the genome that make a mammoth look and act like a mammoth, such as having red hair and the ability to survive in cold climates. But would the resulting creature actually be a mammoth? It wouldn't really matter, explained Shapiro, as long as it served a purpose, for instance to stabilise an environment or serve as a catalyst for new conservation laws.

Paul Jepson, Senior Research Fellow in Conservation Practice at Oxford's Environmental Change Institute, questioned in his talk whether the accepted conservation norms are actually delivering anything for society. We need more experimentation, he argued, perhaps a network of rewilded sites across Europe. It’s an issue I hadn’t given much thought to before, and one that really resonated with me: reforming conservation for the 21st century. Are we ‘doing conservation right’? How often is the public asked how we would like to see conservation carried out in our own countries? Very rarely. And on a separate note, we have zoos, we have national parks, but conservation, if we can view it as a ‘consumer’ area, seems to lack the integral innovation found in other fields, such as food or technology. We need to find the best ways of engaging and inspiring the public in order to breed the conservationists of the future.

The notion of rewilding has been around for nearly 30 years now, and the wackier, more controversial ideas have received their fair share of media attention. But will rewilding, and the benefits it could bring, ever be taken seriously as part of the environmental policy agenda? I’m willing to surmise that we’ll never cut through the red tape that currently prevents elephants once again roaming free in Europe, but there at least ought to be a consideration given to a different model of conservation. In a world where increasing urbanisation means we are ever more removed from the nature around us, we should do everything we can to ensure the relationship between humans and the natural environment doesn’t itself dwindle into extinction.

This opinion piece reflects the views of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Oxford Martin School or the University of Oxford. Any errors or omissions are those of the author.