Just a thought…
Whenever I hear any reference to those graceful, nimble and fleet-footed group of antelopes known as the gazelles, my thoughts are automatically drawn to the African savannas and deserts. The name Springbok (Antidorcas marsupialis), that iconic species of gazelle that serves as the national emblem of the South African rugby team, instantly incite thoughts of the vastness of the Karoo and Kalahari of southern Africa. The name Thomson’s gazelle (Gazella thomsonii) immediately draws my attention to the endless expanses of grass that comprise the plains of the Masai Mara and Serengeti where they, along with wildebeest and zebra, follow the ebb and flow of the seasons.
But what of the name Bourbon’s gazelle (Gazella borbonica), or European gazelle? Does it ring a bell? Does it incite any familiar thoughts of wilderness?
For most the name would be utterly unknown! The reason being that this species went extinct, along with a myriad of other large herbivores and carnivores, throughout Europe during the Pleistocene (possibly Holocene). Before the rise of “civilisation” the Bourbon’s gazelle enjoyed a vast range throughout southern Europe along the Mediterranean coast from Portugal in the west, through Spain, France, Italy and into the Balkans, Greece, Turkey and the Levant. Throughout this wide range these European gazelles roamed alongside red deer (Cervus elaphus), fallow deer (Dama dama) and mouflon (Ovis orientalis) across various habitats from Mediterranean scrub and pine and oak woodlands to mountainous terrain.
So how did these beautiful creatures meet their end? Well as the Holocene era dawned across southern Europe man increasingly laid claim on the hunting and feeding grounds of the native predators and prey. European lions (Panthera leo), leopards (Panthera pardus), cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus), wolves (Canis lupus) and even Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus), along with most of their prey species, slowly faded from the landscape and from the memory of rising empires! So it may well be concluded that these animals disappeared from the European landscape as a direct result of human devise. Although climate may have contributed, it was by no means the determining factor!
Over time the loss of such species from the European environment gradually led to the demise of many other species as entire ecosystems collapsed and became very much altered and depleted of biodiversity. So in order to restore the ancient and authentic environments of Europe, may we now consider the reintroduction of lost herbivores that originally helped to shape these environments. But now a second question remains, how do we reintroduce a species that as been lost into the deep abyss of extinction? The answer is: Not all has been lost! For although the Bourbon’s gazelle disappeared from Europe, it’s close relatives have managed to survive, albeit just, in small enclaves of suitable habitat along the Mediterranean coast in northern Africa and the Middle East. One such species (which may well have been part of a superspecies with Bourbon’s gazelle) is the mountain gazelle (Gazella gazella) that survives in remnant populations in Israel and Turkey, while the second species is the Cuvier’s gazelle (Gazella cuvieri) that survived in small mountainous enclaves in Morocco. These two gazelle species still inhabit environments that are extremely similar to those found in the Mediterranean countries of Europe.
So hear is the question: Should we again restored these highly endangered gazelle species into suitable habitat along Europe’s Mediterranean coast?
Please feel free to comment your opinion!
Marcel van der Merwe II
Cape Town | South Africa