Welcome to Pleistocene Park: The mammoth plan to recreate an ice age ecosystem in Siberia
A real-world Jurassic Park is never going to happen, but shooting for a more recent prehistoric era might be more achievable. The Pleistocene Park project is aiming to rebuild a lost Ice Age ecosystem in Siberia, and its directors, the father-and-son team of Sergey and Nikita Zimov, say it could help slow the effects of climate change. Now, the initiative is running a crowdfunding campaign to help transport a new herd of animals to the park.
The project's roots can be traced back to 1988, when Sergey Zimov first began grazing Yakutian horses – a large, stout breed that's particularly well adapted to the bitter cold. In 1996, Pleistocene Park kicked off in earnest, with the long-term goal of increasing the density of animals living in Siberia to return the land to a state it hasn't seen in 10,000 years.
Today, Siberia has relatively low biodiversity, but that wasn't always the case. During the last Ice Age, the region was covered with a biome known as the "mammoth steppe," a grassy landscape densely populated by – as the name suggests – woolly mammoths, as well as species of bison, horse, reindeer, and musk ox. These creatures lived in symbiosis with the fast-growing grasses, and the ecosystem was so successful that it managed to spread over much of Europe, Russia, northern Asia and Canada.
But around 12,000 years ago, the mammoth steppe all but vanished from the planet, and two familiar culprits have been blamed for that – climate change and human activity. The hypothesis goes that as the planet grew warmer in a natural event, humans ventured farther north. On finding such a bounty of animals, our ancestors did what they did best and hunted them. The reduced animal populations could no longer maintain the ecosystem, and the mammoth steppe quickly unraveled.
The central goal of Pleistocene Park is to bring that ancient ecosystem back to Siberia, creating what the Zimovs call a "Northern Serengeti." That means restoring the populations of those animals. Some, like reindeer, moose and Yakutian horses, still live in the region and can be easily rehomed in the park. Other species, like bison and muskoxen, have gone extinct locally and would need to be reintroduced from other parts of the world.
Currently, the park is home to over 90 animals, including Yakutian horses, reindeer, muskoxen, yaks, sheep, moose, bears and one lonely wisent. This may not be the exact collection of critters from the Ice Age, but it should fill most of the same ecological niches – yaks and sheep, for instance, were never native to the area but have similar grazing behaviors.