Dawn on the east Siberian plain illuminates four Yakutian horses at Pleistocene Park

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A digital painting of Yakutian horses

Yakutian Horses on the Siberian Plain

Pleistocene Park

Pleistocene Park (Russian: Плейстоценовый парк) is a nature reserve in the Sakha Republic (aka Yakutia) in northeastern Siberia, where an attempt is being made to recreate the northern steppe grassland ecosystem that flourished in the area during the last ice age

At the end of the Pleistocene era – 10,000 years ago – dust-covered plains and valleys dominated the landscape of Sakha. Mammoths, woolly rhinoceroses, bison, horses, reindeer, musk oxen, elk, moose, saiga (an antelope), and yaks grazed the grasslands, hunted by cave lions and wolves. The grass gave way to moss and forest, habitats disappeared, and the large mammals went with them. Conventional wisdom holds these changes were caused by the warming climate.

Sergei Zimov, Director of Pleistocene Park believes human hunters who drove the area’s megafauna are really responsible. To prove his point he is turning 160 sq km of Siberian “desert” back into the teeming wilderness of the late Ice Age, complete with grazing pastures and animals that have not been seen here for millennia. The main idea is that wildlife, more so than temperature, maintained that ecosystem. This argument is the justification for rewilding Pleistocene Park’s landscape with megafauna that was previously abundant in the area, as evidenced by the fossil record.

The aim of Pleistocene Park is to recreate the ancient taiga/tundra grasslands that covered the Beringia region in the late Pleistocene. This form of grassland (which is also known as Mammoth-tundra) was inhabited by a diverse set of large and medium herbivores. Back in the Pleistocene the area was populated by many species of grazers which assembled in large herds similar in size to those in Africa today. Species that roamed the great grasslands included the Woolly mammoth, Steppe wisent, Reindeer, Lena horse, Saiga antelope, Muskox. Other herbivores which were abundant during the Pleistocene in this region but which are now faced with possible extinction in their remaining habitats is the saiga antelope which can form massive herds that keep the vegetation down.

Restored grasslands could also have a significant role in slowing global warming. Thawing permafrost could release huge quantities of methane, a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide, creating yet more global warming. Grass insulates the permafrost better than mossy wetlands and so would slow the rate of thaw during any global warming that might be coming our way.

At the edges of the grasslands were shrubbier terrain and dry conifer forests (similar to the taiga). IThis was the home of the Pleistocene browsers. This group of megafauna included Woolly rhinoceros, Moose, Elk, andBactrian camel. The more mountainous terrain was occupied by several species of mountain going animals like the Snow sheep.

A great variety of predator species were also found during the Pleistocene. Prides of Beringian cave lion roamed the plains. These large cats were the apex predators of the region, but also shared their habitat with other predators such as grey wolf, cave hyena, homotherium, brown bear, wolverine and arctic fox. Brown bears, wolverines, cave bears, Eurasian Lynx, siberian tigers, Amur leopard and red fox made their homes at the edges of the plains and in forested areas.

In 1988, Yakutian horses, such as those seen above, were introduced as a first step in recreating the ancient landscape. As the horses multiplied, it was discovered that in areas where the horses grazed, mosses and weeds were replaced by grasses which rapidly began to spread as the range of the horses was enlarged. The horses are not alone; other Pleistocene survivors which still reside in the local wilderness such as reindeer, wild sheep, elk and moose are also found. However in order for full restoration of the ancient ecosystem to take place biodiversity must be increased and populations must rise to larger numbers than they are today. The next phase was the introduction of Wood bison or Wisent into the park as the fossil record shows that the extinct but closely related Steppe Wisent was present in large numbers. In September, 2010 musk-ox from Wrangel island were reintroduced. Seven months later, red deer and wisents arrived in park . Other species such as the yak or bactrian camel are hardy animals, well adapted to the temperature fluctuations and have also been considered for introduction.

The most controversial aspect of the reintroduction of species to the park are the carnivores. Most of these species are however already present in the region such as grey wolf, wolverines, Eurasian lynx, red fox and Eurasian brown bear. However there have been suggestions for the rewilding of more Pleistocene-like carnivores as there is a need for large carnivores to keep control over growing populations of herbivores. Suggestions include reintroducing the amur leopard which was present in the area up until historical times and which is now facing a bitter struggle for survival in a small habitat on the eastern coast of Russia.

The same has been proposed for the Siberian Tiger, which is one of the largest and most feared land carnivores on earth but which has suffered a fate similar to that of the Amur leopard with which it shares its range. Another carnivore possible for reintroduction is the spotted hyena, which in fact the famous cave hyena was a subspecies of. The former range of the cave hyena extended to nearly all of Eurasia and Africa, but the eradication of grasslands pushed back the spotted hyenas until Africa.

Perhaps the most controversial of all reintroductions is that of the Asiatic lion which is on the verge of extinction, surviving only in a small reservation in the Gir region of west India. Lions were once one of the most widespread of all species inhabiting all of the world’s continents except Australia and Antarctica. Evidence of this is widespread with the existence of fossils from the European lion, the cave lion, the Beringian (Grassland steppe covering the Bering land bridge between Asia and North America and stretching for several hundred miles into the continents on either side) cave lion and the American lion. Evidence of lions surviving Siberian winter temperatures can be found in the famous zoo of Novosibirsk, which has kept African lions since the 1950s in out-door all-year enclosures. This proves that the concept of introducing wild animals to different climates than their native range is possible. Lions lived side by side with people for several millennia and it is only recently that many of them disappeared. The Romans and Greeks for instance reported the existence of lions in the Balkan mountains and northern Greece as recently as 100 AD. These dangerous but beautiful creatures roamed the northern grasslands of Russia with other large species of animals, some of which survive today, and many that sadly do not, such as Moose, reindeer, cave bear, cave hyena, siberian roe deer, woolly rhinoceros, siberian tiger, amur leopard, Homotherium, steppe wisent, irish elk, saiga antelope, muskox, Elasmotherium, yak, woolly mammoth, snow sheep, wolverine, Eurasian lynx and all the other smaller animals which in total comprise the massive richness of Siberian biodiversity.

The ideas are not however entirely restricted to existing megafauna. There are hopes that one day cloning technology will be advanced enough to recreate a woolly mammoth, a species which became extinct at the end of the last ice age. Recent evidence however suggests that they may have survived into the Holocene with isolated populations of dwarfed individuals surviving on remote islands in the arctic circle such as St. Paul’s island and Wrangel island, both of which are situated very close to the location of Pleistocene Park. Evidence points out that these populations could have existed as recently as 1700 BC. Another candidate for cloning could be the woolly rhinoceros, or an elasmotherium, as there are many of their frozen carcasses in Siberia. If scientists cannot clone them however, they may use black rhinoceros to fill the ecological niche.

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For more information on Pleistocene Park read this short article by Sergei Zimov

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