What's next for rewilding?

by ZSL on

By Will Farren and Henny Schulte to Bühne

The relationship between people and biodiversity is dysfunctional, especially in affluent countries. The latest report on the Living Planet Index tells us, once again, that our activities are progressively destroying the species and ecosystems that make this planet both habitable and enjoyable. It is true that biodiversity conservation has slowed down the loss of biodiversity in many instances, but ‘business as usual’ is clearly not on track to safeguard life on Earth for future generations. In response to this realisation, rewilding has gained traction as a new environmental paradigm, galvanizing conservation imaginations – but also attracting significant criticism.

What you envision when you hear 'rewilding’ varies widely. To rewilding enthusiasts, it means a new strategy to achieve healthy, self-sustaining ecosystems, and an opportunity for people to reconnect with nature. Some of these visions stress the introduction of large animals, including predators; others focus primarily on releasing the land from human intervention, letting nature develop as it pleases. Rewilding sceptics regard it as a ‘spruced-up’ version of well-established conservation strategies, such as species translocation and ecosystem restoration, and not a novel approach. Finally, rewilding opponents see rewilding as threatening livelihoods, historical landscapes and land uses, and ultimately community identity and self-determination. 

Exmoor Ponies that roam Knepp Estate, West Sussex ©Hayley Carr
Exmoor Ponies that roam Knepp Estate, West Sussex ©Hayley Carr

Especially in the past two decades, rewilding projects have started all over the world (such as the Oostvardersplassen Nature Reserve in the Netherlands and Knepp Wildland in England), where the theoretical aspirations and criticisms of rewilding have played out in real time. At the same time, mainstream conservation organisations such as the IUCN are exploring ways to incorporate rewilding principles into their strategies. In short, rewilding is here to stay in one form or another as a conservation approach. How then can we make sure that rewilding can deliver on its ambitions, while minimising risks to both existing biodiversity and people? How can it best complement other existing and emerging conservation approaches? 

‘Free Roaming Animals!’ sign at Knepp Estate, West Sussex ©Henrike Schulte to Bühne
‘Free Roaming Animals!’ sign at Knepp Estate, West Sussex ©Henrike Schulte to Bühne

To answer these questions, we need to establish what falls under the rewilding umbrella, and how to integrate it into the legal and policy frameworks that govern our relationship with nature. The UK’s decision to leave the EU, and thus distance itself from the Common Agricultural Policy, has opened a door to a potentially significant reshaping of environmental policy. For instance, the Environmental Bill that is currently discussed in parliament proposes to add a duty to “enhance” – and not merely conserve – biodiversity in England. Many proponents of rewilding argue that it could deliver on such an optimistic goal. However, there are still challenges to overcome before rewilding enters the mainstream, both at policy and research levels.

In the upcoming ZSL Science and Conservation Event ‘What's next for Rewilding?’, we discuss these challenges, and encourage you to join us in hopes of stimulating the conversation about what role rewilding can play in conservation.  

For more information on how to attend this online event held on 13 October 2020, 6pm – 7:30pm, visit the event page   Event information
 

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