Birds, bears and mammoths – coming soon?

A UK revival for the world’s heaviest flying bird is being funded by the EU. Now other extinct species could be on their way back.

The eggs might not have looked like much, but for David Waters they were a dream come true. For the first time in nearly two centuries, after years of hard work and tens of thousands of pounds spent, great bustards were breeding in Britain. Now the EU has announced it will spend £1.8 million to support the reintroduction of this extraordinary bird species.

The great bustard is the world’s heaviest flying bird, known for its huge size and magnificent mating display. In the 19th Century, hunters and egg collectors drove the species to extinction in the UK, but it looks like they’ll soon be firmly re-established in their old haunts.

For Waters, who led the reintroduction effort, this is a triumph. ‘A great bustard,’ he said, ‘apart from having a smashing name, is an extraordinary bird. As a flagship for UK wildlife reintroductions it is simply unbeatable.’

The hope is that other previously extinct species can follow in the bustard’s footsteps and return to their old British habitats.

Some have already arrived. Red Kites, which had disappeared from England by 1932, are now being spotted in record numbers; white tailed eagles have returned to Scotland and wild boars are now breeding in forests in the South East.

Other reintroductions are still being planned. Conservationists are running trials to see if beavers could come back to Scotland; there are proposals to return lynxes to the Highlands; scientists have even begun thinking about bringing back wolves, which haven’t been seen since the 1700s, or bears, which haven’t been seen since the Romans.

One research team have a still more radical idea. By using frozen DNA they believe they might be able to resurrect the woolly mammoth, a giant elephant-like species that was completely wiped out more than 10,000 years ago.

Balancing act
Reintroducing lost species is hard and expensive work. It also has to be very carefully done.

After all, some species aren’t easy to live with. Wolves are dangerous predators that might prey on livestock. Boars spoil crops. Beavers cut down trees to build their dams. And it’s hard to imagine mammoths fitting quietly into the English countryside.

But by bringing back lost species, say ecologists, we can rebalance ecosystems that have been broken by human activity.

Another benefit might be getting more people excited about nature and conservation. As one ecologist wrote: ‘the reintroduction of charismatic species is also a way of re-wilding the human mind.’

You Decide

  1. Do humans have a moral responsibility to the environment and to other species? Why?
  2. Wolves can be dangerous. If we reintroduced wolves, and they killed or injured a human, would it be worth it?

Activities

  1. Design a poster showing some species that have gone extinct, either in the UK or worldwide. Which ones would you like to reintroduce if you could?
  2. Many different groups use National Parks in Britain - for example walkers, fishermen, farmers, birdwatchers, tour guides etc. Role-play a meeting between members of some different groups to discuss the possible introduction of new species. What would each group want and how would that affect their position?

Some People Say...

“Species go extinct if they’re weak. We shouldn’t protect species that can’t protect themselves.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What’s an ‘ecosystem’ then?
An ecosystem is a web of different species that all link with each other. For example, deer feed on trees and wolves feed on deer.
And reintroducing species can ‘rebalance’ one?
Yes. In the example above, when wolves disappear, deer numbers rise. The deer then destroy too many trees. Bringing back wolves brings deer and tree numbers back into balance.
Are they seriously thinking of bringing back mammoths?
Well, sort of. A Japanese research team has launched an effort to clone a mammoth from frozen DNA. But even if they succeed, we’re a long way off seeing mammoths roaming free.
How did we bring back bustards if they were extinct?
Great bustards were only extinct in the UK, unlike mammoths, which were hunted to extinction worldwide by our cave man ancestors.