Of hippos, horses and restoration

THE GUARDIAN (U.K.) reports:

When the drug lord Pablo Escobar was shot dead in 1993, he left behind a zoo stocked with wild animals alongside his multibillion dollar cocaine empire. The lions, giraffes and other exotic species were moved from the luxurious Hacienda Nápoles estate east of Medellín to new homes, but nearly three decades later, dozens of hippos, descendants of animals left behind, are thriving in small lakes in northern Colombia, making them the world’s largest invasive animal.

Now scientists say that contrary to the conventional wisdom that large invasive herbivore mammals have strictly negative effects on their new environments, Escobar’s “cocaine” hippos show how introduced species can restore a lost world.

A team of conservation biologists has compared the traits and impacts on the ecosystems from large invasive herbivore species like the Colombian hippo with their extinct counterparts from the Late Pleistocene (around 116,000-12,000 years ago) period like mammoths, giants sloths and giant wombats. They found some modern day invasive species restore parts of ecosystems not seen since before humans began driving the widespread extinctions of megafauna.

Their new study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencesfound that some introduced herbivore species are an almost perfect ecological match for extinct species from the Late Pleistocene, such as modern day wild horses known as mustangs and the extinct pre-domestic horses in North America, while others bring back a mixture of traits.

The study authors came from the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) in Australia, the University of Kansas, the University of California Davis and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County in the US., Sussex University in the UK, the Universidad de Alcalá in Spain and Aarhus University in Denmark.

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The Brumbies of Oz

Australia suffers one of the highest rates of plant and animal extinction in the world due to habitat clearing and the introduction of invasive species, from cane toads to cats. Australia’s wild horses, also called Brumbies, are often blamed for the devastation. Proven, scientific evidence against this notion is ignored, and the horses are shot and killed “to protect the lands”. Here is a recent example of suggested shootings.

Following the 2020 Australian wildfires earlier in the year, it was reported that as many as 17,000 wild horses were “destined for the knackery (slaughterhouse) or shot in trap yards” to help restore burnt out lands. Here is one incident that was used to argue for this unconscionable plan.

Wild horses were sighted nibbling at newly sprung grasses among the scorched earth after their wildfires. Their enemies saw this as a prime opportunity to sway public opinion against the horses and accept their removal and death by arguing that the horses were impeding healing of damaged lands. This is not based on science and certainly not humane.

First of all, wild horses roam as they forage; they are constantly on the move. Additionally, no horse, wild or otherwise, grazes all the way down to the dirt, as other foraging animals do, like say ahem, cattle.

Secondly, wild horses are constantly on the move which means their nutrient rich manure is spread, packed down into the ground by their hooves, fertilizing as they go. Horse manure does not destroy the earth, but instead enhances soil structure, water- and nutrient- holding capacity, and reduces the soil’s susceptibility to erosion.

So you see how errant the call for the destruction of wild horses in Australia is. Move some of the horses to areas where the worst damage was done to help bring the lands back, but in no circumstance destroy them.

We will be having more on this debate, so stay with us.


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