Cocaine Hippos and Tigers in Kilts

You may have read stories in National Geographic or the Guardian about the “cocaine hippos” imported into Columbia in the 1980s by the drug lord-cum-psycopath Pablo Escobar. Perhaps you’ve heard how several of the hippos escaped from Escobar’s private zoo into the local rivers, where they quickly made a happy home. And though this might seem like the ultimate example of an invasive species, I’m sure some of you know that a few biologists believe the hippos are filling an important, and long vacant, ecological niche. The hippos, they argue, have similar diets and behaviours to extinct megafauna–giant llamas (yes, you read that right) and something called a notoungulata–which died out some 5-12,000 years ago. In other words, the hippos are living in the same places, eating the same things and acting in the same ways as animals that have been missing from the environment for thousands of years.

Combine this with the fact that hippos are ecological engineers–that is, they are so big that they change the environment around them–and you end up with a landscape that hasn’t been seen in South America since the late Pleistocene. Now isn’t that cool!

A group of scienticsts at the County Durham College of Agriculture, Animal Husbandry and Fine Art sure thinks so. In fact, they are so taken with the idea that modern animals can be used to restore ancient habitats, they’ve started a brand new project to create a Pleistocene Park in Scotland. And how, you ask, are they going to do that? Simple. They want to introduce Siberian tigers into the Scottish highlands.

Sure, the plan is crazy. Absolutely bonkers. Not to mention astoundingly dangerous. But admit it, the moment I mentioned releasing tigers into the Scottish countryside, a small voice deep inside your head whispered, “Awesome!”

The CDCAAHFA research team believes that the tigers will fill the same ecological niche that was occupied by sabre-tooth tigers until about 11,000 years ago. Prof. Harry Saddler, Head of Experimental Bioeconomics at CDCAAHFA, argues that this will have hugely beneficial effects on Scotland’s rural economy. Prof. Saddler says that Siberian tigers will help control the local deer population, reducing losses to farmers’ crops and incomes. The tigers will also help limit the damaging, summer migrations of another notoriously invasive species, the American Tourist (it is, after all, difficult to take a relaxing stroll across the countryside while being stalked by a 250 kg tiger), while refocusing the Scottish tourist industry on the lucrative “adventure” market.

“Currently,” Prod. Saddler says, “backpackers and walkers pay an average of £22.50/night for camping sites in Scotland. Based on the experiences of safari parks in Africa, our modelling indicates that, simply by adding a large predator to the landscape, we can increase that nightly spend by 500%. After all, who will want to sleep in a flimsy tent when tigers are roaming about?”

Prof. Saddler acknowledges that some local people will be concerned about having real, live tigers as neighbours. He points out, however, that 1) our Stone Age ancestors lived side-by-side with sabre-tooths and 2) our Stone Age ancestors survived, while the sabre-tooths went extinct. “So why all the fuss?” he asks.

If the Scottish Tiger project goes well, the Experiemental Bioeconomics team has further plans to introduce white rhinoceros to South-Eastern England. “The rolling grasslands there present a perfect habitat,” says Prof. Saddler, “with the white rhinos taking the place of the Pleistocene wooly rhinocersos. The only thing standing in the way of the project is Highways England’s reluctance to build suitable rhino crossings over and under the motorways.”

Normally, dear reader, this is the point where I’d tell you to watch this space for updates on the project’s progress. In the case of the Scottish Tiger project, however, all you really need to do is keep an eye out your window. If you see American tourists running screaming down the lane, you’ll know it’s a success.

(P.S. No Americans were harmed in the writing of this blog post.)

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