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What Is Rewilding? Benefits and Approaches to Letting Nature Be

Rewilding is essential to the ecological restoration of the natural world. As the human population grows and industrialization increases, it interferes with natural ecosystems, leading to the extinction of various animal species, habitat loss, climate change, food chain disruption, and changes to biodiversity systems. 

Over the years, rewilding efforts have increased rapidly. Non-governmental organizations have taken up the duty of restoring the natural world to how it was before human interference. This article answers the question, “What is rewilding?”. It also explores the types, benefits, and principles of rewilding. Here, you will learn about the processes that make rewilding efforts possible.  

What is Rewilding?

Rewilding meadow
Photo by Caro Rue on Unsplash

Rewilding aims to improve biodiversity by re-introducing natural processes that help nature flourish. You can also refer to rewilding as conservation biology. As a nature-based method, rewilding does exactly what the term means: restoring the earth to its natural, wild state.

Rewilding involves reinstating the natural processes, apex predators, and keystone species- allowing them to rebuild wild landscapes and healthy ecosystems and protect nature from human development. 

Rewilding, formerly known as wilderness recovery, originated in North America in the 1980s. The origin of rewilding stems from the need for proper ecosystem management and reduction in biodiverse species extinction. An American environmentalist, Dave Foreman started the discussion in a journal titled Wild Earth.

Over time, the concept of rewilding spread from North America to South America, Europe, Australia, Africa, Asia, and other countries. The initial inception of the rewilding concept prioritized ecosystem restoration and protection through inter-connected networks of ecological processes established to protect keystone species. 

Conservation biologists Soule and Noss described the essential features of rewilding. The key features are large core protected areas, ecological connectivity, and keystone species. 

These key features later became the model for the 3Cs: cores, corridors, and carnivores.

Reintroducing large carnivores into the wild requires space, known as cores. Cores are unrestricted habitats that are free from human intervention11. These cores need corridors that connect them to facilitate free movement9.

As rewilding initiatives grow around the world, they also evolved. Rewilding projects became the solution to preserving functioning ecosystems, biodiversity loss, and environmental degradation. It evolved to handle the relationship between modern society and nature, ecotourism, and deep ecology. 

It uses several concepts to maintain functioning ecosystems. These concepts include taxon replacement, species reintroduction, retro breeding, land abandonment, the release of captive-bred animals, and spontaneous rewilding. 

Noteworthy examples of rewilding

A beaver in the wild
A beaver in the wild. Photo by Scott Younkin

So far, rewilding solutions have successful records. In 1995, they reintroduced wolves to Yellowstone National Park in the United States of America. Wolves were abundant in America, but overhunting led to their extinction in 1926. The absence of wolves led to the overpopulation of deer species, leading to overgrazing and disruption of the local ecosystem. Reintroducing apex predators led to reduced deer populations and the restoration of nature.

Another instance where rewilding was successful is the reintroduction of beavers throughout the United Kingdom in 2017. Human activity interrupted the beaver population, which led to frequent flooding problems. The Wales Wild Land Foundation reforested a 75-acre region of Welsh Land with broadleaf trees and reintroduced beavers in 2017.

The reintroduction of beavers led to the restoration of healthy ecosystems and natural processes. They improved wetlands, and flooding stopped. Now, there is species diversity like giant otters, water voles, fish, birds, and dragonflies.

Related: For a light stop to appreciate nature, check out our nature quotes and environment sayings.

Types of Rewilding 

Pleistocene rewilding 

Pleistocene rewilding is the reintroduction of extinct Pleistocene megafauna or close ecological extinct equivalents. Simply put, it is a type of rewilding that focuses on re-introducing animal species to regions where they were no longer found.

A pleistocene megafauna is a group of large animals that lived during the Quaternary period. Their mass extinction led to a collapse of fauna density and diversity and the loss of critical ecological strata worldwide.  

Pleistocene rewilding is to recreate the natural world of the Pleistocene period as perfectly as possible. It means expanding and reintroducing extant species that experienced a rapid population decline and habitat loss. Also, it could mean introducing proxy species, species that are not vulnerable to extinction but have morphological relations to threatened and extinct species4.

In 1989, researchers introduced Pleistocene rewilding to Siberia, Russia. They introduced wood bison, yakutian horses, and muskoxen to recreate the grassland ecosystem of the Pleistocene era. Biologists are proposing the Pleistocene concept to North America to restore some of the ecological features lost 13,000 years ago and also prevent the extinction of the present megafauna6.

Pleistocene rewilding promotes the large and older species over pests, enables the survival of megafauna globally, and widens conservation from extinction management to total ecological restoration. 

However, it also comes with risks. We risk altered disease ecology and associated human health problems by implementing Pleistocene projects. In addition, there is the risk of unexpected ecological and sociopolitical consequences of reintroduction7.

Passive rewilding  

Passive rewilding
Photo by Luca Bravo on Unsplash

Passive rewilding is a type of rewilding that allows the natural processes of wildlife to restore themselves with no human intervention. Humans cease to use and manage land ecosystems. Passive rewilding is mostly unintentional. 

When we abandon land that has previously experienced heavy human developments, it restores itself over time by growing new tree and plant species. However, you can be intentional about it by abandoning your private land. And further, larger-scale programs of passive rewilding can result in restoring sustainable biodiversity.

According to Pereira, a professor of biodiversity conservation at the German Center of Integrative Biodiversity Research, there are three elements attached to passive rewilding. The first element is the restoration of biodiversity by allowing the return of wildlife. This involves the restriction of hunting, which prevents the disappearance of wildlife.  

The second step is allowing rewilded landscapes to connect. This allows native species of plants and animals to move around. The third step is an important step that we mustn’t skip. We must allow unpredictable natural disturbances like pests, soil erosion, floods, and fire outbreaks to occur on the rewilded landscape. Just let nature run wild.

Passive rewilding is the best conservation strategy for forests because it is cheap. It is a significant effort that can restore native forest biodiversity, especially in restricted and fragmented land areas3.

Translocation rewilding  

Rewilding through translocation is a conservation strategy used to restore populations and ecosystems from threats of loss of habitats, reductions in their quality, biological invasions, and the impacts of climate change.

Translocation is the deliberate relocation of a species from one site to another5. There are three different contexts for translocation:

  • The reintroduction of organisms into their historical native habitat from which they have become extinct.
  • Supplementation or reinforcements refers to including species in a population.
  • In the last context, assisted colonization refers to the attempt to reestablish a species outside of its historical distribution, but it is in an appropriate biological area and habitat.

Between 1973 and 1989, over 700 translocation rewilding projects occurred in the US, New Zealand, and Australia. These attempts were to restore and improve the natural populations. It applies to plants, top predators, and other species. A review stated that plant reintroductions into protected areas increased survival rates1.

Benefits of Rewilding  

Ecologists advocate for rewilding because of the benefits the environment and humans stand to gain. Here are six benefits and ways rewilding can help:

1. It helps wildlife adapt to ecological change. 

Rewilding helps the wildlife ecosystem adapt to ecological change. Rewilded ecosystems are more resilient to increasing climate conditions. They maintain biodiversity better, and carbon gasses sink better than forest plantations.

Diverse microhabitats and distribution dynamics created by natural disturbances and top predators are important for various species to survive and recover from global warming, improving the adaptability of wildlife and its ecosystem10.

2. It provides economic opportunities.

It makes possible the development of new businesses and companies based on reintroducing the wildlife ecosystem. These new businesses will offer new and exciting products, which translates to increased revenue. 

Also, old enterprises that went out of business because of the vulnerability and extinction of a particular wildlife animal or plant can begin business again. The reintroduction of these species ensures they stay in business. 

The development of new and old businesses provides more job opportunities. It reduces people's dependence on subsidies. According to an analysis of rewilding efforts in Europe for the past ten years, there was a 54% job increase and a thirteenfold increase in volunteering positions.

Rewilding will also lead to an increase in nature and wildlife tourism. This will lead to a boost in the local and regional economies.

Tourism is a booming global economic sector, generating $3.6 trillion, and it has kept increasing by at least 20% annually since 1990. Yellowstone National Park's rewilding efforts attracted many tourists and generated up to $9 million annually.

3. It reduces and reverses biodiversity loss

Because of human activity, biodiversity is in a rapid decline globally. There is a 38% decline in land and marine ecosystems and an 81% decline in freshwater ecosystems. This decline affects the role of wildlife in nature, causing ecological degradation. 

Rewilding allows us to restore the species and fauna we lost. The reintroduction of large herbivores can reduce the occurrence of wildfires because of their natural grazing habits. They prevent extreme wildfires by thinning out vegetation. Also, large herbivores increase the grassland arthropod species. 

For instance, conservationists reintroduce beavers into the ecosystem through several rewilding efforts because they increase plant diversity8. Also, they let loose large predators that prey on invasive species, restoring natural balance.
Read more: Biodiversity facts.

It improves human health.  

Another benefit of rewilding is its impact on the health of our water, air, and vegetation. Breathing in clean air protects our lungs and other respiratory organs from diseases, while consuming clean water also prevents diseases from contamination2.

Read more: Air and water pollution facts.

Rewilding can mitigate climate change.  

Rewilding can improve the current state of environmental degradation by increasing carbon storage and removal capacities. Greenhouse gases are one of the major causes of climate change in the environment. Governments are exploring various techniques to reduce the carbon present in the atmosphere. 

Some of these techniques are carbon-capturing plants, which capture carbon in boxes and redirect it deep into the earth. However, rewilding offers a much less stressful and cost-effective way to manage global climate warming. Trees, peat lands, wetlands, grasslands, water, and salt marshes absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide. 

Coastal wetlands can absorb carbon 40 times faster per hectare than tropical rainforests. The peat lands in Northern European countries absorb 370 million tons of carbon annually. They absorb carbon as they grow and don’t leach carbon back into the atmosphere when they decay.

Read more: Climate change facts.

It is cost-effective.  

Rewilding is a relatively inexpensive project. According to researchers in Denmark, rewilding is cheaper without adding the European Union subsidies. Although costs vary from region to region, it is more affordable than conventional nature conservation attempts.

Rewilding is cheaper because it relies on natural processes to create diverse habitats for plants and animals. It is self-regulatory, which makes it very sustainable. Also, it provides varying degrees of ecosystem services like water purification, buffering, recreation, and nature therapy. We are bringing nature back cheaply while gaining many benefits.

Read more: How Nature Benefits Mental Health.

The Principles of Rewilding   

Ten rewilding principles are gathered from literature reviews, criticisms, surveys, and communication with experts. Rewilding initiatives should follow these principles.

  1. Rewilding uses wildlife to restore natural interactions. Predation, competition, and other biotic and abiotic interactions are crucial to a successful rewilding plan. 
  2. Plans for rewilding should consider core areas, connectivity, and co-existence. It should provide a secure and accommodating habitat for all species, with a need for coexistence between wildlife and humans. 
  3. Rewilding should focus on recovering ecological processes, interactions, and conditions to restore a self-sustaining and reliant ecosystem. 
  4. Rewilding understands the ever-changing dynamics of nature. It recognizes the external and internal factors of nature’s temporal change. 
  5. Rewilding plans should expect the effects of climate change and work to lessen its environmental impacts. 
  6. Rewilding needs local support. It should encourage public understanding and appreciation of nature.
  7. Traditional ecological knowledge (TEK), science, and other local knowledge should form the premise of rewilding plans. 
  8. Rewilding understands and accepts the inherent value of all species and ecosystems. 
  9. Rewilding adapts and depends on monitoring and feedback. 
  10. Rewilding needs a paradigm shift in the coexistence of humans and nature. There should be a change in advocacy and activism for a functioning ecosystem because society doesn’t accept the degradation and overexploitation of nature.

Conclusion 

Rewilding prioritizes the restoration of our environment's ecosystem. Human population and development damaged the ecosystem heavily. As we try to find solutions to preserve what's left of nature and our natural resources and prevent catastrophic climate change, we should consider affordable methods and all aspects of the ecosystem.

Rewilding is cheap and allows nature to be nature. We can restore the earth’s ecological systems by reducing and removing human interference.

1

Langridge, J., Sordello, R. & Reyjol, Y. Outcomes of wildlife translocations in protected areas: what is the type and extent of existing evidence? A systematic map protocol. Environ Evid 9, 16 (2020).

2

Mills, J.G., Weinstein, P., Gellie, N.J.C., Weyrich, L.S., Lowe, A.J. and Breed, M.F. (2017), Urban habitat restoration provides a human health benefit through microbiome rewilding: the Microbiome Rewilding Hypothesis. Restor Ecol, 25: 866-872. 

3

Morel, L., Barbe, L., Jung, V., Clément, B., Schnitzler, A., and Ysnel, F.. 2020. Passive rewilding may (also) restore phylogenetically rich and functionally resilient forest plant communitiesEcological Applications 30( 1):e02007.

4

Kerr, KCR. Zoo animals as “proxy species” for threatened sister taxa: Defining a novel form of species surrogacyZoo Biology. 2021; 40: 65– 75. 

5

Julien Louys, Richard T. Corlett, Gilbert J. Price, Stuart Hawkins, Philip J. Piper. Rewilding the tropics, and other conservation translocations strategies in the tropical Asia-Pacific region. Ecology and Evolution 2014; 4( 22): 4380– 4398

6

Dustin R. Rubenstein, Daniel I. Rubenstein, Paul W. Sherman, Thomas A. Gavin, Pleistocene Park: Does re-wilding North America represent sound conservation for the 21st century?, Biological Conservation, Volume 132, Issue 2, 2006, Pages 232-238, ISSN 0006-3207.

7

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.

8

Bakker, E. S., & Svenning, J. C. (2018). Trophic rewilding: impact on ecosystems under global changePhilosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences373(1761), 20170432.

9

Carroll, C., & Noss, R. F. (2021). Rewilding in the face of climate changeConservation biology : the journal of the Society for Conservation Biology35(1), 155–167.

10

Adapting to Climate Heating (pdf). (n.d.). Rewilding Britain.

11

Carver, S, et al. Guiding principles for rewildingConservation Biology. 2021; 35: 1882− 1893. 

Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.

Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.

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