Return to the wild

Saving threatened wildlife from the brink of extinction is no easy feat. Despite all efforts in conservation biology, the 2014 Living Planet Report claimed wildlife populations have declined 52% over the past 40 years. (Umm…massive!) Surely there’s other answers to buck this trend. So, how about embracing rewilding? And what even is this? A bit of a tongue twister to start with – try saying “rewilding rhino” three times quickly and you’ll see what I mean.

Sticking back what was once wild and free? Image credit: RachelEFrank via flickr
Sticking back what was once wild and free? Image credit: RachelEFrank via flickr

The idea of rewilding was born and raised in the global north – where human-driven development and disturbance has altered landscapes and removed magnificent beasts over thousands of years. It takes on a direct, proactive approach to conservation, as opposed to more traditional preservation strategies, by reintroducing a species back to the wild; free to roam and do their thing! It is particularly focused towards those species on the brink of extinction or where an ecological service across a landscape is currently missing, i.e introducing mega-herbivores for grazing.

Rewilding: smart innovation, nostalgia or just plain mad?

Rewilding certainly poses some radical ideas, which quite obviously generate controversy among scientists and the general public alike. Think rhinoceros and elephants roaming Scandinavia for example!

However, most proposals are a little closer to home. The idea behind rewilding theory is to restore ecological processes by getting keystone species and apex predators back into a dwindling and damaged ecosystem.

It may be easy to romanticise the notion of tapping into long lost cultural legacies, such as wolves and wild boar roaming Europe again, but in realistic terms, it would be foolish to dismiss the inevitable social challenges of this new unconventional tactic. Most critics find it hard to dispute the theory entirely, just stress that it requires rigorous assessment of all risks, issues and logistics before implementation. So, the benefits seem to far outweigh the risks.

There are a few other blockages however…

Most of our global conservation frameworks were established last century and provide little room for creative or innovative concepts, nor much incentive to branch into this area. But for the growing number of threatened species at stake, it is time for these centralised institutions to modernise and to allow some regulatory flexibility at more local scales.

A political game

Much of the world’s legislation around nature conservation is becoming outdated and experts are starting to say revisions should include the possibility of experimental rewilding. Those scientists advocating for rewilding need to present feasible policy options that can be taken seriously against the somewhat rigid institutions and our risk-adverse governments. Otherwise ideas taken forward might be quickly squashed.

The good news is, some areas are gaining traction where we could learn by. The non-for-profit, Rewilding Europe, have been taking massive steps in the rewilding game. With an increasing amount of rural land becoming abandoned, this group are buying it up to turn Europe back into a wild place. One million hectares already in fact! The US and Briton also have programs forging ahead.

Wolves are back in Yellowstone. Image credit: doublejwebers flickr
Wolves are back in Yellowstone National Park. Image credit: Jeremy Weber via flickr

Does native matter?

To mechanically or artificially restore a natural functioning ecosystem by introduction of selected fauna species is fraught with many unknowns and risks. When playing with non-native substitute species, the stakes are even higher. One idea, (call it crazy or not), is releasing the Komodo dragon in Australia to re-establish certain ecological order that was lost with the extinction of a  megafauna goanna species.

Closer in time than megafauna period is the wave of extinctions Australia has faced since European arrival. This ancient land is home to some pretty ancient animals, including of course the oldest mammals on earth being our marsupials and those all-bizarre egg laying, milk producing monotremes; the echidna and platypus. So it’s no wonder they’re a little more sensitive to a new world of exotic pests, diseases, habitat destruction, population booms and pollution!

Therefore, rewilding poses an option that’s not all far from the time such species were shunted out or fully exterminated. It’s too late to bring back the Tasmanian tiger (or Thylacine), but Rewilding Australia believes reinstating quoll and Tasmanian devil populations over Australia would improve ecological resilience while improving the species’ population health.

The devil you know… How about these in Victoria soon? Image credit: Andrew Scott via Flickr
The devil you know… How about these in Victoria soon? Image credit: Andrew Scott via Flickr

All of this spurs the question, just what kind of wild nature do we want for our future? Are we content with zoos becoming living museums telling tales of where wildlings once walked or do we actually try to turn back the clock and let them live as they once were in the wild? Whether it will work, what it will prove or and for which animals all depends.

One thing out of this is for certain – the potential to reinvigorate nature education and look at our own place in nature as human beings. Given the chance, rewilding could really liven up public debate and increase community engagement with nature conservation. I’m excited!

For an interesting watch on this topic, check out the recent episode of Foreign Correspondent on ABC iVeiw or George Monbiot’s Ted Talk – for more wonder, rewild the world.

3 Responses to “Return to the wild”

  1. Tamara Meehan says:

    Thanks guys. Yeah, it’s really a pretty straight forward trick to save species and improve the environment at the same time. (A no-brainer to me – given it’s safe to do so.)
    In regards to your query Kimberly, I think it’s a case of ‘horses for courses’ – it all depends. I read in the case of bison release in Romania, the first year they released 28 as a ‘soft release’ letting the animals venture out of the rewilding safe zone at their own will and pace. And then upon that success, they released a second round of bison 12 months later.
    The rewilding networks as mentioned in my article work with governments, the local communities and other partners in ensuring its effectiveness.

  2. Holly Winter says:

    I find this so interesting!! The reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone has had a huge impact on that eco-system (for the better). It is mind blowing to think about the improvement (or damage) that could be done by re-introducing one species to it’s environment.

  3. Kimberley Meyers says:

    A great article, Tamara! You’re right in saying it’s easy to romanticise rewilding – there are definitely a lot of things to consider. It’s especially appealing in the potential for repairing damaged habitats. Do you know of what methods are used for preparing large herbivores for re-entering the wild?