How Do We Rewild the World? (Episode 69)

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Ep. 69 | How Do We Rewild the World?
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How Do We Rewild the World?

Today’s episode has been a long time coming. Modern day conservation practices, newly-designed projects, and a whole movement are centered around this relatively new term: rewilding. While it seems pretty straight forward when you first hear it, rewilding is actually quite nuanced and deserves a full deep dive into what it is, what it isn’t, and successful programs that are using rewilding the correct way.

So, let’s dive in!

What is rewilding?

Before we get to rewilding today, let’s take a step back and explore rewilding’s history and how it came to be.

Rewilding was first introduced to the scientific community in the 1990s by Soulé and Noss (1998) whose landmark paper described the three central features of rewilding, which included reintroducing keystone species, protecting large swaths of land, and connecting protected areas through wildlife corridors. This later became known as the “Cores, Corridors, and Carnivores” or the “3Cs” model. (Carver et al., 2021)

Fast forward to today, and rewilding has undergone scrutiny, refinement, and application. So, what is rewilding?

To answer this seemingly simple question, I took a deep dive into recent scientific literature and, luckily, I found this paper published in the Journal of Conservation Biology called, “Guiding principles for rewilding.” The first author is Steve Carver and was just released in 2021 (Carver et al., 2021). 

Previously not one definition or set of guiding principles existed for rewilding, and so this group of experts was appointed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature Commission on Ecosystem Management (or CEM for short). They interviewed over 50 rewilding experts and scoured the existing literature to come to an all-encompassing definition of rewilding.

Here is how Carver et al. (2021) define rewilding:

“Rewilding is the process of rebuilding, following major human disturbance, a natural ecosystem by restoring natural processes and the complete or near complete food web at all trophic levels as a self-sustaining and resilient ecosystem with biota that would have been present had the disturbance not occurred.”

Rewilding truly is a different conservation management style, which Carver et al.’s ten guiding principles for rewilding demonstrate. Let’s review those and then discuss them in further detail:

  • Principle #1: “Rewilding utilizes wildlife to restore trophic interactions.” 
  • Principle #2: “Rewilding employs landscape-scale planning that considers core areas, connectivity, and co-existence.”
  • Principle #3: “Rewilding focuses on the recovery of ecological processes, interactions, and conditions based on reference ecosystems.”
  • Principle #4: “Rewilding recognizes that ecosystems are dynamic and constantly changing.”
  • Principle #5: “Rewilding should anticipate the effects of climate change and where possible act as a tool to mitigate impacts.”
  • Principle #6: “Rewilding requires local engagement and support.”
  • Principle #7: “Rewilding is informed by science, traditional ecological knowledge (TEK), and other local knowledge.”
  • Principle #8: “Rewilding is adaptive and dependent on monitoring and feedback.“
  • Principle #9: “Rewilding recognizes the intrinsic value of all species and ecosystems. wild nature has its own intrinsic value that humanity has an ethical responsibility to both respect and protect.”
  • Principle #10: “Rewilding requires a paradigm shift in the coexistence of humans and nature.” (Carver et al., 2021)

Obviously, not every rewilding project can utilize all ten principles, but there are a few I want to highlight further. As the first principle states, rewilding projects should consider restoring all trophic interactions by reintroducing missing species. This is where our beloved apex predators, large herbivores, ecosystem engineers, and keystone species enter the conversation. Nature is always striving for balance, and each member of a trophic evolved to fill a certain niche. Once every trophic level is restored, then an ecosystem will return to equilibrium. These reintroductions should also be considered on a landscape-scale, as Sarika in Episode 66 discussed for tigers in central India. Restoring missing species in one protected area just isn’t enough anymore, as we’ve seen time and time again. We need to ask, “What does the ecosystem at large need?”

Next I want to discuss principles #6 and #7. These ideas have been brought up countless times on the podcast by guests from all around the world: rewilding projects need to engage all stakeholders and be formulated using sound science and indigenous knowledge. These crucial principles were lacking in many previous conservation projects, and while some accomplished their objective to a point, we’re now seeing the aftermath of excluding communities from conservation decisions. The planet is in the worst state it’s ever been. It’s time to do something different.

What are the different types of rewilding?

While each rewilding project is unique with its own set of challenges and solutions, most can be added to one of four categories: passive, trophic, Pleistocene, and ecological  (Pettorelli et al, 2018).

Passive rewilding is exactly what it sounds like – humans getting the hell out of the way of nature and letting her return the environment to a natural state. This isn’t the official definition of passive rewilding, but it’s accurate. 

Bakker & Svenning (2018) define trophic rewilding as “an ecological restoration strategy that uses species introductions to restore top-down trophic interactions and associated trophic cascades to promote self-regulating biodiverse ecosystems” (Bakker & Svenning, 2018). In other words, as we discussed in first rewilding principle, reintroducing species to fill missing trophic levels. In my research of current well-known rewilding projects, all of them fit into this category. 

Ecological rewilding “allows natural processes to regain dominance” (Pettorelli et al, 2018). This rewilding strategy’s main focus is to restore processes like water quality.

Lastly, Pleistocene rewilding involves restoring “ecological interactions lost during the Pleistocene megafauna extinction” (Pettorelli et al, 2018). Supporters of this type of rewilding aren’t exactly advocating to bring back extinct large herbivores (although some people are looking into that – I’ll put a link in the show notes to read more about this), but to use large herbivores to restore ecosystem function. This includes bison on the great North American plains, giant tortoises in the Galapagos, elephants in Africa, and wild horses in Europe (Donlan et al, 2006). Again, I’ll dive into specific examples a little later. 

What is the difference between restoration and rewilding?

This is a great question because there’s no longer a clear answer. When rewilding was first introduced as a conservation method, the aim was to employ minimal human intervention to convert degraded land back to its original wild state. Restoration, on the other hand, has relied on ecological restorers to return an ecosystem back to a natural state. As the rewilding movement has grown and evolved with many areas not able to passively rewild, people have stepped in to assist nature in the process (Pettorelli et al, 2018). 

In my eyes, the biggest difference between the two concepts is that restoration doesn’t usually include a strong social component. As explained in the sixth Guiding Principles, rewilding must engage all stakeholders and the local community (Carver et al., 2021). In my years as a conservationist and having worked alongside ecologists, working with locals was never a required objective for the project. This doesn’t necessarily mean that ecologists didn’t want to work with the community, it just wasn’t a part of the agenda. And when you’re given a strict set of objectives to accomplish in a short timeline with limited grant funds, you do as you’re told.

Now, after reading through the scientific literature, restoration is generally considered a tool in rewilding experts toolkit to help achieve their conservation goals.

What are some problems with rewilding?

Probably the biggest issue of rewilding is that until very recently, no one agreed on what it actually was, leading to confusion and ill-defined goals for new conservation projects. The Carver et al. paper I’ve referred to throughout this episode was just accepted in 2021, and yet the term rewilding has been around since the 1990s. Without clearly defined concepts, rewilding has been slapped on almost every new conservation initiative, several of which lack the crucial qualities necessary to be considered a rewilding project.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       

Where are some examples of rewilding?

There are have been several notable rewilding projects around the world. 

Yellowstone to Yukon

First, let’s chat about the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (Y2Y). 

Y2Y strives to create a massive wildlife corridor spanning 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometers for everyone else in the world) from Canada’s Yukon to the United State’s Yellowstone ecosystem. What started as an idea during a 14-day hike across the Canadian Rockies in 1993, Y2Y has turned into a full movement with a mission of “connecting and protecting habitat from Yellowstone to Yukon so people and nature can thrive”. 

This project utilizes many of the rewilding guiding principles presented by Carver et al. including using sound science to reach management decisions, engaging all stakeholders including indigenous communities, landscape-scale conservation (2,000 is huge! Check out the map in the citations to see how much area this corridor covers), and ecological restoration. 

Since its inception in 1993, protected areas in the Y2Y region have increased by 80%! In addition, 500,000 acres of private land have been added through partnerships with landowners and 117 wildlife crosses have been built! (Y2Y, 2022).

Rewilding Scotland

Next, let’s discuss the incredible rewilding initiative in Scotland. 

Scotland is known for its jaw-dropping landscapes and delicious whisky, but unfortunately, humans have reduced the country’s once sprawling forests to a mere 3% of its former glory. Conservationists are changing this narrative by rewilding the country and restoring ancient Caledonian forests in the Affric Highlands. They are accomplishing this by reintroducing keystone species like the lynx and beavers, restoring peatlands, selectively converting plantations to forests, creating forested corridors for wildlife dispersal, and managing deer populations.

One feature I really love about this initiative is its dedication to creating a nature-based economy. Selling carbon credits, establishing nature tourism, and creating sustainable products are all goals of the project, all of which engage and support local communities (Rewilding Europe, 2022; SCOTLAND: The Big Picture, 2022; The Scottish Rewilding Alliance, n.d.). 

Rewilding Africa

Lastly, I want to chat about a seriously ambitious rewilding project. 

Based in South Africa, The Peace Parks Foundation was founded in 1997 by Nelson Mandela, Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, and Dr. Anton Rupert with a dream of moving beyond political borders to create transfrontier conservation areas, or peace parks. The goal of these regions is to protect and reconnect wildlife migration routes while supplying local communities with sustainable livelihoods. 

While their efforts have not been without controversy, the foundation has made great progress in establishing several TCFAs, most notably KAZA or the Kazango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area. 

KAZA is the world’s largest transfrontier conservation area. It spans across five countries (Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana, Angola, and Namibia), covers around 520,000 km2, encompasses 36 protected areas, and includes two of the world’s most famous natural attractions: the Okavango Delta and Victoria Falls.

Local communities were not forgotten when KAZA was established in 2011. Millions of dollars have been poured into the area for community development, education, livelihoods, and human-wildlife conflict mitigation with tourism being the main revenue generator for the region.

In 2019, I traveled to this part of the world and purchased a KAZA visa to explore Victoria Falls, the Zambezi River, Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, the Okavango Delta and Makgadikgadi Salt Pans. At the time, I had no idea what KAZA was and didn’t feel much need at the time to … Now that I know a significant amount more about the work that has gone into the area, I appreciate my experiences even further and can honestly say that the KAZA region may be my favorite place on earth (as of now). I highly recommend added KAZA to your bucket list and experiencing the power of rewilding yourself (Kazango-Zambezi, Peace Parks Foundation, 2022).

What is rewilding for humans?

I couldn’t help but include this topic because I think it’s both fun and interesting to explore. 

What started as a spinoff from the current rewilding movement, human rewilding has become a whole thing of its own, with the message of returning to our pre-domesticated state. While supporters of this movement don’t want us to shed our clothes and move back into caves, they do stress that over millenia we evolved tools and problem-solving abilities that kept us alive in the most adverse conditions, almost all of which have been removed from our cushy lives. 

Although we’re safe from saber-toothed cats and exposure to the elements, the lack of wild in our lives has left us wandering and lost. Behavioral health and addiction problems are through the roof and we’re more disconnected from nature and each other than ever before. Through wilderness survival camps, meditation, and paleo-diets, human rewilding advocates hope to heal society by reintegrating people with nature (ReWild University, n.d.; Roos, 2014)

Conclusion

And there you have it, everyone – (hopefully) a digestible exploration of the rewilding movement. I also plan to dive deeper into this topic in the near future by having on guests that are leading rewilding projects all around the world. I already a few in the works and might create an entire series just on this topic. I’ll be sure to keep you in the know!

If you’d like to support the show, you can leave leave up to a 5-star rating on most podcast platforms and leave a review on Apple Podcasts.   

Lastly, I absolutely love when any of you reach out to me, so if you’d like to chat about rewilding the world, DM me on Instagram @Rewildology or send me an email at hello@rewildology.com.

Thanks again for being here, and remember, together, we’ll rewild the planet.

For those of you interested in reading more about bringing mammoths to life:

Scientists Say They Could Bring Back Woolly Mammoths. But Maybe They Shouldn’t” – NPR
Firm raises $15m to bring back woolly mammoth from extinction” – The Guardian
Bringing back the woolly mammoth and other extinct creatures may be impossible” – Science

Citations:
Affric Highlands. Rewilding Europe. (n.d.). Retrieved March 29, 2022, from https://rewildingeurope.com/areas/affric-highlands/

Bakker, E. S., & Svenning, J.-C. (2018). Trophic rewilding: Impact on ecosystems under Global Change. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 373(1761), 20170432. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2017.0432

Carver, S., Convery, I., Hawkins, S., Beyers, R., Eagle, A., Kun, Z., Van Maanen, E., Cao, Y., Fisher, M., Edwards, S. R., Nelson, C., Gann, G. D., Shurter, S., Aguilar, K., Andrade, A., Ripple, W. J., Davis, J., Sinclair, A., Bekoff, M., … Soulé, M. (2021). Guiding principles for Rewilding. Conservation Biology, 35(6), 1882–1893. https://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.13730

Establishing Wildlife Corridors & Habitat protections in US & ca: Y2Y. Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative. (2022, March 21). Retrieved March 29, 2022, from https://y2y.net/

Josh Donlan, C., Berger, J., Bock, C. E., Bock, J. H., Burney, D. A., Estes, J. A., Foreman, D., Martin, P. S., Roemer, G. W., Smith, F. A., Soulé, M. E., & Greene, H. W. (2006). Pleistocene rewilding: An optimistic agenda for twenty‐first century conservation. The American Naturalist, 168(5), 660–681. https://doi.org/10.1086/508027

Kavango Zambezi. Peace Parks Foundation. (2021, October 19). Retrieved March 29, 2022, from https://www.peaceparks.org/tfcas/kavango-zambezi/

Pettorelli, N., Barlow, J., Stephens, P. A., Durant, S. M., Connor, B., Schulte to Bühne, H., Sandom, C. J., Wentworth, J., & du Toit, J. T. (2018). Making rewilding fit for policy. Journal of Applied Ecology, 55(3), 1114–1125. https://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2664.13082

Picture, S. C. O. T. L. A. N. D. T. B. (n.d.). The big picture is wild forests teeming with life. SCOTLAND. Retrieved March 29, 2022, from https://www.scotlandbigpicture.com/home

Rewild University. What Is Human Rewilding? – ReWild University. (n.d.). Retrieved March 29, 2022, from https://rewildu.com/what-is-rewilding/

Roos, D. (2014, September 12). How human rewilding works. HowStuffWorks. Retrieved March 29, 2022, from https://adventure.howstuffworks.com/rewilding/human-rewilding.htm

Soulé, M. & Moss, R. (1998). “Rewilding and Biodiversity: Complementary Goals for Continental Conservation.” Wild Earth. Accessed from Rewildong.org. https://rewilding.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/RewildingBiod.pdf

The Scottish Rewilding Alliance. (n.d.). Retrieved March 29, 2022, from https://www.rewild.scot/

Thierry, H., & Rogers, H. (2020). Where to rewild? A conceptual framework to spatially optimize ecological function. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 287(1922), 20193017. https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2019.3017Weston, P. (2021, September 23). Vast area of Scottish highlands to be rewilded in ambitious 30-year project. The Guardian. Retrieved March 29, 2022, from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/sep/24/vast-area-of-scottish-highlands-to-be-rewilded-in-ambitious-30-year-project-aoe


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