Guest post: Rewilding: the future of conservation?

In order to put the guanaco rewilding project in context, I asked my colleague Dr. Richard Ladle (Federal University of Alagoas, Brazil, and Oxford University) to write a guest post based on some research we have been working on together.

Rewilding: the future of conservation?
There is something innately appealing about reconstructing the past, hence the popularity of historical re-enactment societies, and a vast array of films from 10,000AD to Jurassic Park. There is a vicarious thrill associated with immersion in the re-imagined past, the closest we can get to time travel.
Conservation has always tapped into this longing. It is no coincidence that the greatest conservationist of his age, Teddy Roosevelt, was also an avid hunter – along with fishing, the pastime that arguably provides the closest emotional links to our hunter-gathering past.
The latest, and arguably the most explicit, historically motivated conservation approach provides a modern spin on the idea of habitat restoration. ‘Rewilding’ can be broadly defined as restoration through reintroduction, often with the aim of re-booting ecological processes and restoring food webs that were lost with the extinction of keystone species.
Two broad approaches to rewilding are coalescing: European conservationists have tended to focus on the relationships between large herbivores and vegetation, drawing on a long tradition of habitat restoration in cultural landscapes using domestic or de-domesticated livestock. By contrast, American rewilders have tended to emphasize the conservation of very large tracts of land to support reintroduced top predators and their prey. There is no real consensus about what belongs in and what should be left out of rewilding projects.
Eight Challenges
Rewilding is controversial. Some conservationists view rewilding as a vision-led, extravagant use of limited funds with little practical application; others see it as a pragmatic and cheap form of habitat restoration. Likewise, many see rewilding as unnecessarily introducing biological and social risks, while others see an opportunity to conduct socio-ecological experiments generating important insights.
If rewilding is to become a widely accepted conservation approach the following challenges urgently need to be addressed:
Challenge 1: Defining the role of humans in rewilding projects.
The “wild” in rewilding implies areas that at one time had no significant human presence and should be returned to this state. Many rewilding projects may have a choice to make between supporting cultural values of pristine wilderness, or promoting a more nuanced view of cultural landscapes and the evolution of the anthropocene.
Challenge 2: Aligning with legal, management and cultural categorizations and frameworks for species and lands.
The widespread use of “de-domesticated” or feral livestock in rewilding projects can create serious challenges to agricultural policy if they are classified as domestic animals. Similarly, active management of feral horse populations by culling is often strongly opposed by groups who struggle to see them as wild animals. Rewilding may similarly blur the lines between native and non-native species through the introduction of surrogate species to replace extinct ones – for example, non-native giant tortoises have been successfully introduced into many pacific islands to ‘replace’ extinct native tortoises. Rewilding clearly needs to be attentive to the policy frameworks within which it seeks to function, and in the most forward-thinking cases the challenges posed by defining rewilded animals could used as a basis for much needed policy reform.
Challenge 3: Defining meaningful baselines
Baselines for conservation and restoration are value-led decisions – arbitrary choices that depend on a complex interaction of stakeholders, policy and tradition. While many rewilding projects seek to restore to a pre-human baseline, rewilding projects can (and do) use historical documents as baselines, which inevitably involves using baselines that include human presence. For example, restoration projects using traditional breeds of cattle or horses are partially recreating historical pastoral systems, many of which used free-ranging animals. Of course, whatever baseline is used the new community will never be an exact simulacra of the past, since the myriad of ecological changes wrought by the combined effects of the introduction of non-native species and a rapidly changing climate mean that all virtually all ecological communities, natural or reconstructed, are now novel. Perhaps the key issue is how to communicate the use of whatever baseline is used as inspiration for the rewilding project: baselines can be used to create a story to generate public support and involvement, or as a hypothesis-generating scenario or even as a starting point for socio-ecological experimentation.
Challenge 4: Rewilding smaller animals
The vast majority of rewilding deals with megafauna. The reason for this focus is that larger animals are likely to have ecological impacts disproportionate to their biomass and are therefore (potentially) efficient restoration tools. The reintroduction of megafauna has other potential advantages related to protecting and locating reintroduced individuals, a lesser probability of becoming uncontrollably invasive, and being highly visible to the public. However, there are also potential disadvantages, large mammals being difficult to handle and move, attractive to poachers and, perhaps most importantly, often causing problems for the local human population. The reintroduction of small-bodied ecosystem engineers and niche constructing species, like prairie dogs and beavers, who also have disproportionate ecological impacts, could potentially also be a form of rewilding.
Challenge 5: Scaling up and down
The goal of rewilding is frequently to preserve or recreate large areas of wilderness. There are several good conservation arguments for this: larger areas have fewer edge effects and can support viable populations of both large and small species. In most places outside Europe, the urgency to protect large areas is driven by the need to conserve key sites before anthropogenic fragmentation and habitat conversion takes place – although these places, by definition, normally do not require rewilding. In Europe, especially in the east where populations are falling, smaller spaces are becoming available for conservation due to agricultural land abandonment. Ultimately, the size of land required for rewilding depends on the species being used, the scale of the ecological restoration outcomes desired, and local vision of what constitutes a wild area. Conversely, given a piece of land that can be rewilded, the type of species, restoration effects and human interactions that can work successfully at that scale may determine how rewilding is done.
Challenge 6: Managing human interactions and attitudes to carnivores
The reintroduction of large carnivores or the expansion of their populations and ranges is the goal of many rewilding programs. While top carnivores rarely have direct habitat restoration effects, they can have a strong impact on herbivores which, in turn, affect plant communities through trophic cascades. The absence of top predators from landscapes often means that herbivore populations need to be actively controlled, or that large herbivore populations self-regulate through starvation. Both of these outcomes can be undesirable from management and public relations standpoints. Nevertheless, the reintroduction of dangerous carnivores is, understandably, often strongly resisted by local residents. Predators act as a litmus test for what stakeholders really want when they want wilderness.
Challenge 7: Defining acceptable levels of management and tourism engagement
The idea that rewilding simply creates large zoos or safari parks has been used to criticize the notion of reintroducing species or their proxies. Critics often represent such reintroductions as unnatural within contemporary environments, requiring excessive management and primarily serving an entertainment function. However, zoos can play useful roles, such as ex situ conservation, natural history and environmental education for the public, and raising funds for in situ conservation elsewhere. Zoo-like rewilding projects could have similar benefits. For example, Payne’s Prairie Preserve State Park in Florida is an 8500 ha reserve containing bison, cracker cattle and cracker horses – all species that were present in the area directly or indirectly due to anthropogenic land uses between the 1600s and the 1800s. These grazers are maintained for their ability to “interpret” the cultural landscape. Such projects are not far removed from large naturalistic zoos such as Whipsnade (UK) and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park (US) and carefully managed natural areas such as the Kruger National Park (South Africa).
Challenge 8: Improving monitoring and assessment.
Many reintroduction programs and habitat restoration programs could contribute to our knowledge of rewilding socio-ecological systems with careful collection of additional ecological and social data. For example, the LIFE Habitat Lince Abutre project aims to improve habitat for Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus) and Black vulture (Aegyptus monachus) in the south of Portugal. The project already includes eventual reintroduction of lynx to modified habitat and habitat corridors, and an environmental education component. In addition to collecting and publishing data on these components, the project could contribute to a fuller picture of socio-ecological change under the umbrella of rewilding by eventually researching the indirect effects on habitat structure, ecological functioning and biodiversity due to lynx reintroduction. Many existing reintroductions could be rebranded as rewilding by the implementation of monitoring and assessment protocols.

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