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The promise of rewilding

An exciting range of initiatives should give us hope, says the conservation storyteller

Young marine iguana on Galapagos Islands, Ecuador. Photo: Millie Kerr

Three years ago, I set out to write a book on rewilding. The term was already buzzing, particularly in the UK, but when I dove headfirst into research, I discovered my understanding was moderate at best. I was familiar with rewilding initiatives aimed at restoring some semblance of “wildness” to the English countryside (and former agricultural land in Europe), but I didn’t realise that the American founders of the rewilding movement envisioned large-scale initiatives built upon three Cs: carnivores, cores, and corridors. They had grand ambitions of restoring full ecological functioning to large wilderness areas like Yellowstone National Park, with help from carnivores. Following their reintroduction to the world’s first national park, grey wolves reactivated what are known as trophic cascades. From their position at the top of the food chain, the apex predators exerted control over prey species that had knock-on effects on small creatures and plants. Wolves, it turns out, are critical to Yellowstone’s health.

I was taken with the idea of writing about large-scale efforts that adhere to rewilding’s original definition, in part because many of us are fatigued by a barrage of negative headlines regarding the environment. Our planet is in serious peril, of course, but gains are being made every day. It’s important – perhaps imperative – that we recognise conservation achievements. In doing so, we find hope. We also honour the heroic conservationists who spend day and night working to restore nature and protect endangered species. These individuals have powerful stories to tell but rarely take the microphone. A so-called “conservation storyteller,” I am determined to spotlight their grit.

So, for my book Wilder, I selected eleven core projects from around the world whose leaders are a fascinating cast of characters, from a Mexican dancer turned pangolin-nanny to fledgling conservationists who narrowly escaped death during civil war. I wanted to demonstrate that even in places where rewilding isn’t part of the conservation lexicon, rewilding is happening – as we speak. Efforts may be embryonic, but they show incredible promise for people, protected areas and wildlife alike.

The projects feature diverse rewilding approaches in addition to diverse locales. Most are “active”, meaning they involve considerable management by rewilders, at least at the outset. In Mozambique, conservationists began rewilding Gorongosa National Park by removing unnatural, unhealthy elements, from livestock to landmines. Once the land came back to life, critical species that vanished during the country’s civil war were reintroduced. African wild dogs, leopards and spotted hyenas were brought home, and rhinos may join them in the future. American Greg Carr, who made millions in the tech industry before devoting himself to philanthropy, funds the project. Locals were initially sceptical about his presence – some see conservation as a postcolonial pursuit – but Carr quickly proved that he was a genuine ally, a foreign partner committed to returning resource management to local authorities and communities.

Akagera National Park in Rwanda, like Gorongosa, suffered wildlife losses and vegetation changes as a result of civil strife. Species reintroductions have bolstered the park’s ecological health while encouraging tourism – an important source of revenue for many of the projects that appear in Wilder – but wildlife translocations, while exciting, can’t occur in a vacuum. Poaching took a toll, but human and livestock encroachment were the primary causes of Akagera’s decline: following the country’s civil war and genocide, displaced Rwandans returning from countries like Uganda and Burundi found their homes were occupied. They had nowhere to go, so the Rwandan government amputated the park (as one writer put it), dedicating half to refugees and their cattle.

Not all of Wilder’s chapters examine the rebirth of war-torn regions. I explore the thorny topic of invasive species eradication in New Zealand, where introduced animals like stoats and possums are exterminated so that critically endangered ground-dwelling birds like the adorable kākāpō parrot can bounce back from the brink of extinction. I also write about my hometown of San Antonio, Texas, whose eponymous river is in the midst of an ecological overhaul. And when I rented a writing retreat during the pandemic, I had the chance to examine sustainable agriculture in Over Norton, England, which helped me understand why British rewilders now shy away from the term, because it has a negative knee-jerk reaction among most farmers.

While urban and small-scale rewilding efforts aren’t as riveting as projects that involve “charismatic megafauna” like elephants and tigers, their lessons are ripe for application. Not that each of us should launch micro-rewilding efforts. Rewilding is not without risk, particularly when poorly conceived or pursued without expertise and scientific rigour.
I often wonder if the men responsible for introducing non-native species – whether British house sparrows to the United States or rabbits to New Zealand – didn’t fancy themselves rewilders. Even conservationists have made massive mistakes. In a remote Finnish archipelago, scientists reintroduced a locally extinct caterpillar without realising that living inside the native insects were three species of foreign parasitic wasps. Thirty years later, the wasps still occupy the archipelago.

Although I consider my writing wildlife-centric, Wilder is ultimately about the people behind rewilding. Friends have asked which characters interest me most. I hesitate to answer; it would be like admitting to a favourite child. But a particular statement by one of the conservationists involved in the reintroduction of the scimitar-horned oryx to Chad stands out. John Newby told me, “Passion is more contagious than science. It’s what opens the door. Scientists hate that, but goddammit, it works. Rewilding is full of passion, and ambition, so its power lies not just in environmental impacts but likewise in its ability to capture the public’s attention.”

Millie Kerr is the author of “Wilder: How Rewilding is Transforming Conservation and Changing the World”, published by Bloomsbury

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