Large herds of buffalo once trampled the Great Plains, making the landscape appear black and in motion. Wolves roamed the continent, creating complex societies. This time period now lives as legend, in accounts from early settlers and Indian stories. Scattered reserves are home to relatively small populations.
A recently study by scientists from the Princeton University and the World Wildlife Fund found the story of the buffalo and the wolf common on a global scale. The study found that less than 21% of the earth’s land surface still contains all the large mammals (at least 44 pounds or 20 kilograms) than it did in the year 1500.
About 500 years ago, the earth was in a time of great transition as colonization began increasing significantly. Farming was introduced to new regions, often contributing to the decline of large mammal populations.
These animals have a significant effect on the health and function of ecosystems because large mammals are often top predators and sculpt the landscape. Their disappearance can cause other populations to fluctuate greatly if an equilibrium is broken.
“Perhaps the most striking result of our study is that those 109 places that still retain the same roster of large mammals as in 1500AD are either small, intensively managed reserves or places of extremes,” says John Morrison, WWF’s Director of Conservation Measures and lead author of the study. “Remote areas are either too hot, dry, wet, frozen or swampy to support intensive human activities.”
This study speaks to the effects that human populations often have on large mammals and can be used as a tool to shape future action. Eric Dinerstein, WWF’s Chief Scientist and Vice-President of Conservation Science said, “The obvious question we always ask ourselves is: How does this information help us? First, we can now pinpoint places where large mammal assemblages still play important roles in terrestrial ecosystems. Second, we now have targets where through strategic reintroductions – such as returning wolves to Yellowstone – we can restore intactness in places missing one or two species and recover the ecological fabric of these important conservation landscapes.”
Several geographic areas have been identified as priorities of long-term conservation efforts. The Great Plains of North America, the Eastern Himalayas, and Ninibia will be targeted to restore species and bring back populations to levels sufficient to play important ecological roles.
This study highlights the both the effects of human impacts on mammal populations and the opportunity to shift our relationship with these communities.