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Coming Home Again: Reintroducing Animal Species to Their Native Habitat

Prior to the establishment of Yellowstone National Park, gray wolves roamed throughout Wyoming sustained by animals such as elk. But by the 1920s, elk were taking over the park and causing significant harm to the environment by overgrazing. There were no more wolves left to hunt them. Though fraught with controversy, efforts to reintroduce gray wolves into the park finally succeeded in the 90s, following official government funding. As of 2011, there are 10 recorded wolf packs in Yellowstone, and gray wolves are no longer considered endangered in the area.

Biodiversity is essential for healthy ecosystems. Humans haven’t always known this, explaining some prior extinctions. Even when the risks are known, however, profit frequently trumps any concern for the environment: Essential habitats are destroyed for human use, and poachers kill animals to sell the parts, regardless of environmental impact. Since the birth of humanity, biodiversity has been slowly declining. In fact, the period since humanity’s emergence is called the Holocene extinction. Most extinctions are caused or contributed to by humans. Owing to a growing interest in biodiversity in the past decade, governments and environmental groups have made efforts to reintroduce extirpated species where and when possible. The gray wolf program in Yellowstone was a success, but not all species are so lucky.

The oribi, an antelope found in South Africa, is the victim of one such failure. Because of habitat destruction and poaching, the oribi population has dwindled. A captive-breeding facility in South Africa tried to reintroduce the population, but attempts ended in failure. After monitoring 10 oribi that were released in 2009, seven of them died within two months. While oribi are still being bred in captivity, the facility halted future reintroduction attempts.

Many animals are successfully bred in captivity, but reintroduction remains a problem. Scientists find that animals bred in captivity don’t always have the necessary skills to survive. In the case of the whooping crane in the eastern United States, re-establishment has been relatively successful with populations moving from just 15 in the 1940s to 100 today. Yet researchers find that whooping cranes bred in captivity frequently abandon their young, hampering the success of the reintroduction project. The reason why is still a mystery.

When reintroduction fails completely or never takes place, animals go extinct and are seemingly beyond the reach of conservationists. But must extinct species truly remain extinct forever? The Pyrenean ibex is the only species that has been cloned after extinction. It went extinct in 2000, and in 2009, a living clone was born but died only seven minutes after due to lung defects. Cloning extinct species may be possible sometime in the future but isn’t an option for now. If biodiversity is to be protected, reintroduction attempts must happen before complete extinction.

Reintroduction remains mildly controversial with critics arguing that reintroducing predators hurts biodiversity, but that hasn’t stopped conservationists. At least 11 programs are in progress in the United Kingdom alone, and programs have succeeded all over the world, from the muskox of Alaska to the Arabian oryx of Oman. Humans may cause most animal extinctions, but increasingly, humans are preventing extinctions as well.   k

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