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9 Controversial Experiments In Rewilding

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Strange as it is to imagine, at one point lions roamed Europe, horses galloped over Spain, and jaguars prowled parts of the United States. The reason these animals died out wasn’t climate change, but humans hunting or destroying their territory.

Rewilding is an effort to bring species back to their native habitats, even if they haven’t lived there for thousands of years. The idea isn’t just to preserve an ecosystem, but to go back in time.

1. Wolves in Yellowstone National Park

Wolves were all but extinct throughout the 20th century in Yellowstone, but between 1995 and 1997, 41 were released and re-introduced to the park. The effect on the ecosystem was dramatic. First, the wolves thinned out the deer population, which were overeating the vegetation. Eventually, valleys and gorges turned into forests. In some cases, trees grew five times their original size. The forests not only brought in more wildlife, but also changed the rivers, which saw less soil erosion due to the new vegetation. In 2011, the gray wolf was removed from the endangered species list in Idaho and Montana and was delisted in Wyoming.

2. Wild horses in Spain

For the first time in 2000 years, 48 Retuerta horses are roaming western Spain. The endangered Retuertas are the closest relatives to the wild Iberian horses that lived in the peninsula when the Romans were around. Prior to this experiment, the only remaining Retuerta horses—150 of them—were living in a national park in southern Spain. Releasing two groups of 24 horses in their native territory may prove to increase their odds of survival. As more people abandon rural Spain for the cities, conservationists hope to bring biodiversity to a region that has been historically used as farmland.

3. Tortoises in Ile Aux Aigrettes

Ile Aux Aigrettes in the Indian Ocean was once filled with exotic speciesincluding the now-extinct dodo—until humans logged the trees and brought rats to the tiny island. In 2009, researchers introduced 19 Aldabra giant tortoises, which are similar to the extinct tortoise that used to live on Ile Aux Aigrettes. So far, the tortoises, which can get up to 660 pounds, are helping to reforest by eating the fruit of the ebony tree and depositing the seeds around the island. They also eat the nonnative plants and don’t seem bothered by the rats.

4. Trout in South London

At one time, London’s Wandle River was so polluted, locals said it would turn blue, pink, or red depending on what the tanneries were dumping at that moment. In 2003, the river, which connects to the Thames, was clean enough that trout could be released into it for the first time in 100 years. Today, you can even fish in the river, although the Wandle Valley Park says not to eat the trout “as they may hold high concentrations of heavy metals and other substances due to the river’s long industrial history.” 

5. Jaguars in Mexico

Jaguars once roamed the Southwest United States and Mexico, but these gorgeous animals (the largest cats in the Americas and the only ones that roar) have all but died out in the region. The Northern Jaguar Project is trying to change that. The bi-national nonprofit owns a 45,000-acre preserve in Sonora, Mexico that’s home to an estimated 80 to 120 jaguars. The preserve is located near Arizona, and in time these rare cats may be spotted in the U.S. once again.

6. Beavers in Wales

Beavers were hunted to extinction in Great Britain 500 years ago for their meat, fur, and scent glands. Blaeneinion, a 75-acre preserve in Wales, has introduced three beavers into the wild, and other parts of Wales may be following suit. In fact, the Welsh Beaver Project is considering releasing 30 to 40 beavers in River Rheidol sometime this year. The plan is controversial, with opponents worrying about how these dam-building animals will affect rural Welsh life.

7. Salmon in Washington

Speaking of dams, the Elwha River in Washington is a different kind of rewilding project. Instead of introducing species to the river, conservationists are removing dams so species can come back. Since 2011, dams have been removed and reservoirs have been drained and the river flows freely for the first time in a century. Not only are salmon resuming their historic swim, but the sighting of a Dungeness crab along the banks made front-page news.

8. Heck Cattle in Netherlands

Oostvaardersplassen, a 15,000-acre preserve in the Netherlands, has been stocked with animals that would have lived in the area during ancient times—or as close as you can get, anyway. For example, since aurochs went extinct in the 1600s, researchers brought in Heck cattle (which were developed, oddly enough, by the Nazis). Herds of Heck cattle now roam the preserve, as well as red deer, wild horses, and other animals. For $45, you can tour the preserve in a safari-like experience. But Oostvaardersplassen is far from perfect. Since the preserve has no top predators like wolves, rangers have to shoot animals deemed too weak to survive the winter—an issue that continues to be hotly debated in the news.

9. Wolves and bears in Scotland?

Alladale Wilderness Reserve in Scotland is a rewilding effort by multimillionaire Paul Lister. Since buying the 23,000-acre preserve, Lister has stocked it with deer, highland cattle, wild boar, and the first wild elk born in Scotland in 3000 years. There are also 800,000 indigenous trees, including Caledonian pine. (Scotland used to be so wooded that the Romans called it the “Great Wood of Caledon”—today only 1 percent of those forests survive.) Lister wants to reintroduce wolves and bears to the region, an idea that has been greeted with opposition. Despite this, Lister is moving ahead with a study on releasing two packs of 10 wolves in an enclosed 50,000-acre space. No doubt, he’s drawing on Yellowstone for inspiration.

BONUS: Horses in the Mongolian region

The Przewalski horse is the only surviving subspecies of the Asian wild horse. Stocky, with a thick neck and short mane, the horse used to roam from the Ural Mountains to Mongolia. For much of the 20th century, it was classified as “extinct in the wild.” However, these days there are herds of Przewalski’s horses in parks in Mongolia, Russia, Hungary, and China, according to Scientific American. There’s even a herd in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, which is now a wildlife refuge. The horse has been reclassified as “endangered.”

All images courtesy of Thinkstock.

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Animals
Scientists Discover 'Octlantis,' a Bustling Octopus City
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Sylke Rohrlach, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Octopuses are insanely talented: They’ve been observed building forts, playing games, and even walking on dry land. But one area where the cephalopods come up short is in the social department. At least that’s what marine biologists used to believe. Now a newly discovered underwater community, dubbed Octlantis, is prompting scientists to call their characterization of octopuses as loners into question.

As Quartz reports, the so-called octopus city is located in Jervis Bay off Australia’s east coast. The patch of seafloor is populated by as many as 15 gloomy octopuses, a.k.a. common Sydney octopuses (octopus tetricus). Previous observations of the creatures led scientists to think they were strictly solitary, not counting their yearly mating rituals. But in Octlantis, octopuses communicate by changing colors, evict each other from dens, and live side by side. In addition to interacting with their neighbors, the gloomy octopuses have helped build the infrastructure of the city itself. On top of the rock formation they call home, they’ve stored mounds of clam and scallop shells and shaped them into shelters.

There is one other known gloomy octopus community similar to this one, and it may help scientists understand how and why they form. The original site, called Octopolis, was discovered in the same bay in 2009. Unlike Octlantis, Octopolis was centered around a manmade object that had sunk to the seabed and provided dens for up to 16 octopuses at a time. The researchers studying it had assumed it was a freak occurrence. But this new city, built around a natural habitat, shows that gloomy octopuses in the area may be evolving to be more social.

If that's the case, it's unclear why such octo-cities are so uncommon. "Relative to the more typical solitary life, the costs and benefits of living in aggregations and investing in interactions remain to be documented," the researchers who discovered the group wrote in a paper published in Marine and Freshwater Behavior and Physiology [PDF].

It’s also possible that for the first time in history humans have the resources to see octopus villages that perhaps have always been bustling beneath the sea surface.

[h/t Quartz]

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Criminal Gangs Are Smuggling Illegal Rhino Horns as Jewelry
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Valuable jewelry isn't always made from precious metals or gems. Wildlife smugglers in Africa are increasingly evading the law by disguising illegally harvested rhinoceros horns as wearable baubles and trinkets, according to a new study conducted by wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC.

As BBC News reports, TRAFFIC analyzed 456 wildlife seizure records—recorded between 2010 and June 2017—to trace illegal rhino horn trade routes and identify smuggling methods. In a report, the organization noted that criminals have disguised rhino horns in the past using all kinds of creative methods, including covering the parts with aluminum foil, coating them in wax, or smearing them with toothpaste or shampoo to mask the scent of decay. But as recent seizures in South Africa suggest, Chinese trafficking networks within the nation are now concealing the coveted product by shaping horns into beads, disks, bangles, necklaces, and other objects, like bowls and cups. The protrusions are also ground into powder and stored in bags along with horn bits and shavings.

"It's very worrying," Julian Rademeyer, a project leader with TRAFFIC, told BBC News. "Because if someone's walking through the airport wearing a necklace made of rhino horn, who is going to stop them? Police are looking for a piece of horn and whole horns."

Rhino horn is a hot commodity in Asia. The keratin parts have traditionally been ground up and used to make medicines for illnesses like rheumatism or cancer, although there's no scientific evidence that these treatments work. And in recent years, horn objects have become status symbols among wealthy men in countries like Vietnam.

"A large number of people prefer the powder, but there are those who use it for lucky charms,” Melville Saayman, a professor at South Africa's North-West University who studies the rhino horn trade, told ABC News. “So they would like a piece of the horn."

According to TRAFFIC, at least 1249 rhino horns—together weighing more than five tons—were seized globally between 2010 and June 2017. The majority of these rhino horn shipments originated in southern Africa, with the greatest demand coming from Vietnam and China. The product is mostly smuggled by air, but routes change and shift depending on border controls and law enforcement resources.

Conservationists warn that this booming illegal trade has led to a precipitous decline in Africa's rhinoceros population: At least 7100 of the nation's rhinos have been killed over the past decade, according to one estimate, and only around 25,000 remain today. Meanwhile, Save the Rhino International, a UK-based conservation charity, told BBC News that if current poaching trends continue, rhinos could go extinct in the wild within the next 10 years.

[h/t BBC News]

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