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Will there be African Beasts Home, Home on the Range?


Americans love big ideas. But a really bold idea published in the scientific journal Nature has some people howling. Almost literally howling, since the subject is a plan to "re-wild" the Great Plains.

Re-wild, meaning to re-locate wild animals -- including predators like lions and cheetahs -- from Africa to vast, fenced "ecological history parks" on the American prairie. The goal would be to save species that are endangered because of their ever-shrinking African habitat.

The Nature article notes that 13,000 years ago, at the end of the Pleistocene geological era, the North American prairie teemed with big vertebrates like woolly mammoths and an early version of the cheetah. They were all hunted to extinction by newly arriving humans.

Saber-tooth tigers and the like are gone for good. But the folks with the re-wilding idea say today's threatened beasts like elephants, camels, and big cats could avoid the same fate on the American Plains. And what fabulous photographic safari attractions they would make for tourists!

Critics are having fun with all this. One writer envisions "elephants in the driveway." Another foresees "cheetahs slouching through the West Texas scrub." Someone else pictures camels frozen solid in prairie winter snowdrifts.

But other conservationists think re-wilding deserves a fair look. The Nature Conservancy, for instance, gives it a "hats off" salute "for being provocative," though it adds, "If you want to think big, why not think big in Africa?"

Former television magnate Ted Turner is already talking modest re-wilding at his New Mexico ranch, with plans to bring back a giant, nearly extinct, breed of tortoise. Turtles on the plains? Fine, say sheep and cattle ranchers. But inviting hungry lions to roam America's grasslands? Fence or no fence, they say, the plan is insane.

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