Rewilding through vision

Ecological globalization

The current and often rampant or senseless destruction of nature in many places around the world in the name of progress and economic globalization or limitless growth will almost certainly undermine or determine our own survival within the next 50 years. Unless we want to become just a short chapter in evolutionary history humanity will need to take a wiser course by adopting an ecology-based collective or societal mindset and act accordingly. There is urgent need – on many fronts – to effectuate the safeguarding of existing natural ecosystems and wilderness areas, and subsequent advancement in restoring, rejoining and/or revitalizing at least part of the natural area that has been lost during modern human history. This can only be based on harmonious co-existence between the human and natural world; acting instead of considering. We call this process ecological globalization; good for people and nature!

Landscape of fear – Lions and zebra’s are wide-ranging and ecologically vital species on the great Masai Mara plain in Africa. By Liesbeth Rijsdijk.

Rewilding and ecological growth as noble endeavour by humanity

The principle of safeguarding, restoring, reconnecting and revitalizing large natural ecosystems with no or little detrimental human infuence (i.e. wilderness) was initially proposed by the Wildlands Project (now Wildlands Project) founded in the United States in 1991. This process is being mainstreamed as rewilding or continental conservation. The progressive rewilding movement is based on an intellectually rich tradition of large-scale and holistic nature conservation and deep ecology inspired by conservation founders and visionaries like John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt, Aldo Leopold, Arne Næss and others. Renowned scientists of the Wildlands Network, led by founder and father of conservation biology, Michael Soulé, realized that none of North America’s protected areas are large enough to sustain landscape and biological diversity in the long run. For instance many large mammals, birds and migratory organisms, require greater natural spaces in order to perpetuate and fulfill their life histories – and allowing those of others – than was originally thought to be sufficient. Wide-ranging and highly interactive species also fulfill an umbrella function for a range of more localized and sedentary species, and are highly indicative for ecosystem health on landscape scales. The conservation of large natural ecosystems or biomes also ensures that various biotic and abiotic processes and functions on wider scales are contained and maintained, including for example systems for ground and surface waters, renewed natural succession or dynamics, carbon sequestering and (local) climates.

Although rewilding is still developing as a science drawing together various disciplines, the current goals of the rewilding movement are to preserve large core areas or natural ecosystems interconnected with robust ecological corridors and sizeable natural gradients or ecotones, going beyond the traditional protected area system often based on spectacular geological, recreational and scenic values like mountain ranges. These areas should also be sufficiently buffered or shielded from ‘hard core’ or non-sustainable human activities. Moreover, combined in ecological networks these areas should be able to sustain populations of a range of interactive species, including space demanding organisms like large mammalian and avian carnivores with their prey. Rewilding in principle and in practice is increasingly gaining ground and support in other parts of the western world, like in Europe and Australia. In Europe there are many opportunities for rewilding in conjunction with land abandonment in rural areas and with the interweaving of nature in urban areas, based on ecological design and landscape architecture. Such endeavours, once fully appreciated and supported by society and government should ultimately benefit our health, culture, education, science and economics; as part of the Great Work to be achieved by humanity.

A world without carnivores is bleak and without substance. They are part of the intensity and enjoyment of wild nature and feature in the mythology of many cultures (“The raven and the coyote” by Erwin van Maanen).

Carnivores as key components in the scheme of life

In his book ‘’The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex”, quantum physicist Murray Gell-Man (a fervent conservationist) placed the jaguar in a holistic and cosmological perspective, as one of the ultimate revelations of complexity and a culmination of an evolutionary pathway; i.e. complexity from the subatomic to organismic scale. In other words life on earth is in intimate connection with the universe. Indeed the role of carnivores in maintaining and driving organized complexity and further evolution of nature from atop the food chain has only recently started to be unrevelled in the study of trophic cascades or ‘landscapes of fear’ (Terborgh & Estes 2010).

For example, the wolf has shown to exert a disproportionate and strong positive influence on the housekeeping of ecosystems and their goods and services. In several parts of Europe for example, the decline of human populations in rural areas and land abandonment holds opportunities for large mammalian carnivores like the wolf to return. The wolf is presently recolonizing quieter corners and former strongholds in northwestern and southern Europe.

But acceptance of large carnivores and prevention of conflict with economic stakes, on the basis of practical and viable alternatives, requires more effort, persuasion and especially harmonization on many fronts and in many countries. Great determination and patience is required in winning the hearts and minds of diverse stakeholders to accept large carnivores and other crucial organisms (essentially biodiversity) as key to their environment.  Environmental education and the creation of effective conflict preventive solutions and/or economically viable and environmentally sustainable alternatives for people livelyhoods is paramount in this process. This process transcends political, religious, cultural and perceptional boundaries or differences. It is about reconnecting people people with nature, and solving the pressing issues of our planet of which health of the environment is one of several important indicators.

Even in the still relatively wild country of economically prosperous Norway there are opportunities to rewild,  particularly with respect to improving the relationship between humans and carnivores. By E. van Maanen

Ultimately, the biosphere with its highly interconnected and co-evolving components interacts intimately with other earthly spheres, as science increasingly discovers with different disciplines connecting or crossing traditional barriers. On this stage of complexity and organized chaos even seemingly insignificant organisms play a definitive role in maintenance of our planet. For example, the extinction of the honeybee can have disastrous ecological and economic consequences. Large mammalian carnivores interact with herbivores, which interact with vegetation, which interacts with pollinators like honey bees, and so forth. We have only scratched the surface of biospheric complexity studied as a whole entity.  Hence the conservation of large carnivores with respect to spatial and qualitative needs is just one step in the right direction.

Safeguarding the biosphere for our children and theirs

Rewilding is about instilling compassion for nature in many people, and eventually in the majority of mankind in order to obtain the broad-based support, commitment and financing for safeguarding the remaining wild places of our planet and to restore to great extent what was lost during the industrial revolution. We are now entering the green revolution! Of paramount importance is creating viable alternative livelihoods and prosperity for people as population growth is driving poverty and social hardships, in turn rapidly degrading the natural ecology in many parts of the world.  For now the remaining natural places are what is left of the biospheric ‘organs’ buffering the earth against important high order environmental threats like climate change. These remaining vestiges of wild nature are in dire need of safeguarding.

Great challenge lies in attuning a majority of humanity with nature, creating a force of stewards instead of destroyers. Ultimately, rewilding is about restoring the biosphere and for humanity to recognize its humble place in it, instead of dominance. This is a gradual process, but attainable with consolidated vision, drive and effort, and hence with increasing leverage and succes.