The zoo that wants to release wild elephants in Denmark

Asian elephants stand in their pen at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Center for Elephant Conservation in Polk City, Florida. Elephants have extra copies of a cancer-suppressing gene.
PHOTO: Reuters

Thousands of years ago, elephants and lions roamed the plains and forests of Europe and North America. If some conservationists have their way, they will again

Rewilding is here to stay. The term broadly refers to restoring areas of wilderness to their former glory, but it is the reintroduction of large mammals, from wolves to beavers, that has captured the popular imagination, and come to define this ambitious conservation strategy.

Such projects are not without controversy.

Some ecologists worry that reintroducing extinct animals to our radically changed modern ecosystems might have unforeseen impacts.

Farmers and landowners, meanwhile, express concern about the effect interlopers like wolves or lynxes might have on their livelihoods.

Just imagine how they might react to the ideas proposed by a small but dedicated subset of extreme rewilders.

In their vision, the plains of North America and Europe would become home to an even wilder array of species, including lions, elephants and cheetahs.

"In the beginning when we told people about this project they just laughed at us," says Ole Sommer Bach, curator of Randers Rainforest zoo, referring to his institution's plan to introduce a population of Asian elephants in northern Denmark.

"I think most people thought it was some kind of provocation, or a practical joke; but it really wasn't." This is Pleistocene rewilding.

Advocates want to set the clock back not hundreds, but thousands of years.

Around 13,000 years in fact, to when the Pleistocene era was drawing to a close: an almost incomprehensible length of time for us mortals, but the mere blink of an eye for Earth's ecosystems.

Today, the planet's remaining 'megafauna' are largely restricted to Africa and Asia.

But during the Pleistocene every continent was populated with enormous mammals, from the giant wombats of Australia to the various species of elephant that roamed North America and Europe.

The animals themselves are now gone.

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