The concept of Pleistocene Park was first expressed in a book Wildlife Crisis, co-authored by Prince Philip and James Fisher in 1970. Here they used the term to describe most national parks in Africa south of the Sahara desert. These were, they explained, all “Pleistocene Parks” because they contain giant mega-herbivores such as elephants, though the truly giant species were killed off by humans during the start of our current Holocene era. In the Arctic, however, there remain two notable big herbivores, the caribou and the muskoxen, which for this reason are often called Pleistocene relics.
When Philip and Fisher invented the term Pleistocene Park there was no problem of emissions from melting permafrost adding methane and carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and thereby increasing the blight of anthropogenic climate change. Now there is a growing scientific consensus that increasing and protecting herbivore browsing in the Arctic is one of the most feasible ways to arrest this crisis.
A Russian non-profit foundation has been established in northeastern Siberia, south of the Arctic Ocean: a nature reserve called Pleistocene Park. They have increased caribou numbers here and have also brought in muskoxen from Wrangel Island. They have plans to introduce American bison, which were set back by importation difficulties unleashed by the COVID epidemic. They hope that eventually science will produce what are termed “cold tolerant” elephants that will have the same ecological grazing role as the now extinct mastodons and mammoths. Just using wildlife that survived the Pleistocene extinctions, the scientists have reduced the methane emissions from the melting permafrost on their experimental Pleistocene Park.
One negative trend that has largely escaped detection as a climate change threat is collapsing caribou populations everywhere outside of the Arctic but one location. This is the range of the Porcupine caribou herd, which straddles the border area between Alaska and the Yukon south of the Arctic Ocean. It also has a population of muskoxen, shipped to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to restore the species, once threatened with extinction, to more of its former range. The Porcupine herd is around 180,000 animals, close to the high point of its population.
Just using wildlife that survived the Pleistocene extinctions, the scientists have reduced the methane emissions from the melting permafrost on their experimental Pleistocene Park. since records were first kept early in the 20th century. Between 2001 and 2016 the herds numbers increased by 44 per cent.
That the Porcupine caribou herd is growing is a tribute to the determination of the Gwich’in nation and their environmentalist allies in Canada and the United States to defend it from schemes for petroleum exploration. One of the first acts of US President Joseph Biden was to impose a moratorium on all oil and gas leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which has become an oasis within a bleak and formidable Arctic desert. Biden questioned the legality of the leases, citing the lack of legally mandated environmental impact studies. In Canada the Gwich’in won a similar victory in the Canadian Supreme Court in 2017 which quashed efforts to have similar petroleum extraction in the herd’s forested wintering range.
What is disgraceful is that, outside the range of the Porcupine caribou herd, mining and other types of resource extraction have caused caribou populations to collapse. This was warned about by Prince Philip in his capacity then as international Executive Director of the World Wildlife Fund, in a poorly reported Royal Visit to Canada. He expressed concern that it would be folly to wreck the Canadian Arctic for a luxury bauble like diamonds.
As a result of a plague of diamond mines, caribou numbers in most of the Canadian Arctic have collapsed, shrinking caribou herds and accelerating permafrost melt. This is shown most dramatically in the decline of the Bluenose caribou herd, whose range has been impacted by diamond mining. The herd in 2018 had 218,000 caribou. This has crashed to 8,200. Apart from disrupting habitat, mining creates new roads. These both encourage poaching and accelerate permafrost melt.
Caribou numbers are also crashing in Russia. In 2009 there was only one of the Russian herds, the Leni Olenyk which had not by then experienced serious decline. We do not know if that herd’s population has since collapsed, since Russia has stopped releasing caribou herd statistics.
There have been no international actions on Russia to protect caribou habitat, since such sanctions imposed after the invasion of Crimea have avoided the energy sector. It is revealing that the first US Secretary of State under former US President Donald Trump was former Exxon executive Reg Tillerson, who was deeply involved in schemes disrupting caribou habitat in Russia.
The success of the Gwich’in shows that the example of Pleistocene Park is viable and needed. They have achieved, in effect, a virtual Pleistocene Park dominated by growing herds of caribou and muskoxen, in a landscape the size of all of the American states of New England. Extending this model and increasing numbers of complementary large herbivores is, as Project Drawdown has pointed out, one of the most practical solutions to anthropogenic climate change.
John Bacher is a peace and environmental activist in St. Catharines, Ontario.