The Bizarre Plan To Reintroduce Elephants & Lions To North America

“To me, the only good cage is an empty cage.” —Lawrence Anthony, The Elephant Whisperer

In A Nutshell

North America isn’t known for its giant mammals. However, some scientists want to stock its shores with African creatures like lions and elephants. It’s all part of a plan called “rewilding,” a movement that hopes to restore Earth to its glory days. While this plan might sound extreme, rewilding has actually worked on a much smaller scale.

The Whole Bushel

Imagine waking up one morning to find an elephant in your rose bushes or a lion in the backyard snacking on your pet pooch. While this kind of thing might happen if you live in the Serengeti (maybe), it’s not a common occurrence in the Great Plains. However, if Cornell graduate student Josh Donlan and his 11 associates had their way, North America would look a lot like Kenya.

In 2005, Donland and company published a controversial paper in Nature magazine, calling for the establishment of a US Ecological History Park, a huge nature reserve full of animals most Americans have only seen in zoos. Creatures like camels, cheetahs, lions and elephants would live and hunt alongside deer and bears . . . and humans.

While it sounds like a Michael Crichton disaster waiting to happen, the scientists believe the park would not only help the economy (big-time tourist dollars) but also aid the environment. Of course, their plan came under heavy fire and was never enacted, but surprisingly, it’s not the first time an idea like this has been suggested. In fact, scientists have been doing this kind of thing for awhile, albeit on a much smaller scale.

The concept is called “rewilding,” a word invented by environmentalist Dave Foreman. The overall gist is to restore creatures where they’ve been hunted to extinction. The key word here is “restore.” Not so long ago, America was crawling with huge cats, woolly mammoths, and giant camels. It wasn’t until humans started crossing the Bering Strait that these great beasts started to disappear.

When these animals vanished, the North American ecosystem changed drastically, not always for the better. According to the study, without mammoths tromping around, the number of weeds multiplied, and without predators like lions and cheetahs, the pest population exploded. In fact, the scientists predicted the decline of major American vertebrates in the near future, all because the ecosystem has changed so completely over the last several millennia. However, if the continent was repopulated with relatives of extinct creatures, some researchers believe the environment could be restored to its former glory.

As proof of rewilding’s positive impact, scientists point to the wolves of Yellowstone. The canines were wiped out in the 1920s, causing the number of deer to skyrocket—until 1995 when wolves were reintroduced. Then things changed dramatically. Wolves kept the deer in check and actually altered their behavior. The deer avoided areas of the park where they could be trapped, allowing trees and other plants to grow. This attracted beavers whose dams provided homes for otters, ducks, and fish. Furthermore, wolves ate coyotes, which increased the rabbit population and lured in hungry weasels and hawks. Eagles and bears showed up to feed on carcasses wolves left behind, and most shockingly, the wolves changed Yellowstone’s physical geography. All the new trees actually stabilized riverbanks, causing less erosion and straighter streams.

Rewilding proponents have also reintroduced flora and fauna in Europe. Environmentalists recently released 48 Retuerta horses into Western Spain. Scottish scientists are hoping to restore forests to over half the country and bring back creatures like red squirrels and wild boars. And Welsh researchers introduced broadleaf trees and beavers to Blaeneinion, hoping to mimic Yellowstone’s success.

Obviously, there are a lot of implications to consider. Many critics point out the disastrous results of introducing rabbits and cane toads to Australia. However, pro-rewilding scientists have an answer at the ready. They explain that neither rabbits nor bufonids (true toads) lived in the Land Down Under before man brought them over. Rewilding is different because the species involved were all native at one time or are related to creatures that were.

Of course, the biggest concern is sharing a neighborhood with man-eaters. Humans aren’t comfortable living next to killer carnivores. That’s why many of them were wiped out in the first place. As of right now, it looks like the US Ecological History Park will exist only in Nature magazine, but who knows? If smaller rewilding programs are successful, then maybe one day Americans will wake up to find their homes surrounded by savannas.

Show Me The Proof

Conservation: Where the Wild Things Were
LiveScience: Lions, Camels and Elephants, Oh My! Wild Kingdom Proposed for U.S.
TED: A walk on the wild side
NPR: Rare Horses Released In Spain As Part Of ‘Rewilding’ Effort

  • Rijul Ballal

    Hmm interesting…

  • Valdez

    Australia had in the not too distant past its own megafauna, but sadly these will never be reintroduced as they are extinct. It would be kind of cool to see the occasional 2 metre high kangaroo and wombats the size of a rhinoceros. The Naracoorte Caves are a cool place to see skeletal remains of these creatures buried in the sand pyramids that build up under sinkholes in the limestone caves below. I would probably pass on the mega-serpents, though…

    • Tasmanian Tigers, that would be a great start! Maybe some Dodo’s. I bet they taste great 🙂

      • Valdez

        Thylacines are a tantalisingly recent mystery. So many people are convinced they are still “out there” somewhere… When you go round Tasmania they do not talk about “extinct” and thylacine in the same sentence… Just last sighted 1936 or whatever year the last specimen died. Pity no-one was cloning back then…

        • It’s so strange to look at moving pictures of an animal that no longer exists. Did you see that movie Hunter? The plot revolves around the notion that there might still be some Thylacines out there. Hmmm my spell check keeps trying to change “Thylacines” into “Hyacinths.” These animals are doomed from all sides!

          • Chester

            There has been some evidence to support Tas Tigers still in the wild including, heard calls, fur and footprints found all after 1933. its not impossible that there is a small breeding population of around 100-200 left.

          • inconspicuous detective

            yes i’ve heard of similar things, though as far as “fur” goes, i have not yet heard of any being found.

          • Valdez

            Ha ha that’s quite funny (the hyacinth bit). I’ll check the clip in the morning.

          • Atlas

            That was a good film, underrated IMO. Without out giving too much away to those who haven’t seen it, the whole Tasmanian Tiger plot (especially the climax of the movie) was really humbling, and really sad. Also, who doesn’t like Willem Dafoe??

          • That was one of Dafoe’s greatest performances, imho.

          • lbatfish

            Then I definitely need to see it. Even if (and this will be painful) I need to actually pay for it!

          • Its a shocker you haven’t seen Hunter yet … your old school buddy for crying out loud 🙂

          • lbatfish

            This was actually the first that I’d heard of it! But if it’s one of his best, then it’s now become my moral imperative.

      • rincewind

        The demise of the Dodo has been attributed to hungry Dutch sailors en route to the Spice Islands of Indonesia. They would take a dinner break on the tropical island and consume the defenceless Dodo, but it was clearly an acquired taste as the sailors named it ‘valghvogel’- meaning disgusting bird.

        • Damn it, ancestors. I hereby solemnly swear I will never eat the last specimen of a species!

          • rincewind

            Reminds me of the giant tortoises, almost eaten to extinction by my ancestors. Soon after their discovery in the 16th century, people began raving about their unbelievable deliciousness, comparing them variously to chicken, beef, mutton and butter – but only to say how much better tortoise meat was than the very best of the aforementioned. One giant tortoise would feed several men, and both its meat and its fat were perfectly digestible, no matter how much of it you ate.

            They were so delicious that, when they tried sending specimens back to England, they never arrived. The sailors ate them…

          • lbatfish

            Sea turtles are also pretty tasty.

  • Colin Moore

    Good idea , all this will do is encourage trigger happy Americans with no respect for wildlife of any kind to go out and shoot them *smh*

    • TheMadHatter

      I don’t like guns for one, and all of my friends who shoot either do skeet shooting or they hunt deer and birds. This prevents overpopulation. I don’t know where you got the notion that all Americans are “trigger happy” and have “no respect for wildlife”. There aren’t any Americans who go around shooting things that they shouldn’t be shooting. The ones that do get their hunting license suspended and possible their guns taken away. (I use Americans because citizens of the United States of America is way too long)

      • rincewind

        Quote: “I don’t know where you got the notion that all Americans are “trigger happy””
        You can blame Hollywood for that. That city is your own worse enemy.

        • TheMadHatter

          Very true

      • Spartachilles

        His wording didn’t necessarily mean that ALL Americans were triger-happy, just that there were some who would shoot all the wildlife.

        • TheMadHatter

          And my rebuttle is that there is, in fact, no Americans who would shoot all the animals.

      • Erich

        “There aren’t any Americans who go around shooting things that they shouldn’t be shooting.”

        You don’t follow the news of any source, do you?

        • TheMadHatter

          You know fully well what I meant. I’m talking about hunting animals that hey shouldn’t be hunting. Every country has murder and homicide, I wasn’t as specific as I meant it.

      • Carlos Fantastico

        not all Americans but lots of them. and lots of them don’t even get their license suspended or in any trouble unless they get cought on the spot.

  • Two words: Zebra mussels.

  • Check

    Would it really be wise to bring in animals that have never been in the continent just because there used to be animals LIKE them? North America might have had mammoths and saber tooth tigers, but it never had elephants and lions. Just because those creatures are related doesn’t mean they’ll have the same impact on the environment. I think we might open up different cans of worms while trying to fix one problem.

    • Antonio Ortega

      This is a very old comment but… yes, North America used to have lions:

      Still, while it would be nice to recover the ecosystem, it would probably add unnecessary hazards to humans, so it will never be done.

      • Check

        Thanks for reply! I forgot I made this comment at all, lol!

        Good to know about the lions, thanks!

  • Why not reintroduce intelligent life to North America?

    • Nathaniel A.

      We certainly wouldn’t get the animals from the Netherlands Arjan.

    • edzyl blane


    • Spartachilles

      Well said. I think I was one of the first to be placed in my community.

      • asda

        people who think they are smart are often the dumbest, yes!!! score one for this dumbass.

        • Spartachilles

          Not the dumbest, but not always the smartest. Sometimes, smart people can make a smart statement that they are smart.

    • TheMadHatter

      ;0 offensive! 🙁

    • Jake

      cant here ya from the moon. also, if you are gonna be a jingoistic fucktard and disregard the usa, i ask that you speak and type in german. because thats what you would speak and type if it hadnt been for men far greater than a man like me, and a euphoric douchemite like you.

      • The Ou7law

        Hey calm down jake there is a shit ton of truth to his statement if you dont like it dont read it. Nuff said

        • Thanks bro 🙂 Did you get some sleep tonight? Little ones can get pretty sick, I hope he’s getting better.

          • The Ou7law

            Lol yeah somewhat brother, but now he gave me what he had and i feel like poop

          • Is he already going to school? They pick up everything that goes around there, and than pass it on to you haha. You guys could do with some sunshine, some summer, to blast away that shitty feeling.

          • The Ou7law

            I know its actually 40 F right now believe it or not lol. And no he is only 2 but he is in daycare, i effing hate daycare but you got to do what you got to do.

          • That’s true. Spending time with your kids is the best, they grow up so fast. I sit here with a teen daughter – green haired, black lipstick, all grumpy cus its that time of the month – doing homework I don’t even understand. Seems like just a couple of months ago she was a smiley giddy toddler lol.

          • The Ou7law

            Lol i here that im glad i have a boy he is the cutest little kid. And yeah you have to cherish every single moment cuz one day its all gone and then the i hate you starts lol. How is the weather on your side my friend

          • Haven’t had a real winter here, 40F was as cold as it got. I have a boy also, very very different. He’s still all smiles, just before I brought him to bed, he hugged his moth sister like he was a little bear, he growled affectionately, then let her go and bunny hopped towards the stairs haha you should seen the look on his sisters face. Kids rule, boys or girls i don’t mind. My daughter sometimes Skypes with Hadeskabir you know. I’m checking out for the day, get well, take care, a happy dad makes a happy kid remember 🙂

          • The Ou7law

            Lol your boy sounds great haha my son always growls like a dinosaur. Take care my friend

          • lbatfish

            You’re soft, warm and squishy?

          • lbatfish

            Or did you mean it like: “Man, I feel like a beer right now!”

      • I love you too Jake.

      • TheMadHatter

        “Can’t hear you from the moon”? I’m all “USA, USA” too, but what the heck man?

        • You’re a cool cat, MadHatter.

          • TheMadHatter

            Don’t think I’ve ever heard that phrase used in all seriousness in my lifetime ;D

          • lbatfish

            You have no idea how many LOLcat pics I needed to look through, but I thought that this one was the best:

          • TheMadHatter

            Ha, a Mad Cat. Perfect!

      • Carlos Fantastico

        Lol so far you seem like the biggest douche here… maybe I’m mistaken

      • marc

        sorry we only learn about when america helps in international affairs in the u.s. little emphasis on history we don’t even teach our own history correctly , sorry jake but the russian’s had already begun to turn the tide on the eastern front beginning with the victory in stalingrad before we had entered the war in europe.

    • The Ou7law

      Because that would mean America would actually have to work and do something and we all know they dont know how to do that

      • HawkSperm

        Not true, I’m at work right now. Granted I’m looking up lists and porn, but I showed up today.

        • The Ou7law

          Lol hahahaha i love you man, yeah same here brother only in Merica do we get this freedom

  • Nathaniel A.

    I support rewilding, as long as you keep in mind that species extinct for quite awhile, say 200+ years, their ecological niche has most likely closed and it will do more harm than good to reintroduce them.

  • P5ychoRaz

    Sounds like this video is saw recently. It was about how reintroducing wolves to Yellowstone ultimately changed the course of the rivers. It had some interesting information but got removed due to copyright infringement 🙁

  • UN

    with so many wild animals facing extinction i for one think its a brilliant idea

  • Liege_Lord

    “the wolves changed Yellowstone’s physical geography. All the new trees actually stabilized riverbanks, causing less erosion and straighter streams.”
    The wolves are planting trees now?

    • 2pppppppppppppp6

      “Wolves kept the deer in check and actually altered their behavior. The deer avoided areas of the park where they could be trapped, allowing trees and other plants to grow.” Does that clarify things for you?

    • lbatfish

      Only just recently.

      In the past, they’d been hoping to keep out of the fight, but finally decided to join forces with the environmentalists. That’s why you see them in some of the latest “Save the Whales” vids.

  • asda

    people in the states and canada probably just want to hunt them for “sport” so they dont have to spend to get over there