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

Select a blog

Careers at ZSL

Our people are our greatest asset and we realise our vision for a world where wildlife thrives through their ideas, skills and passion. An inspired, informed and empowered community of people work, study and volunteer together at ZSL.

Nature at the heart of global decision making

At ZSL, a key area of our work is the employment of Nature-based Solutions – an approach which both adapt to and mitigates the impacts of climate change. These Solutions, which include habitat protection and restoration, are low-cost yet high-impact, and provide multiple benefits to people and wildlife. We ensure that biodiversity recovery is at the heart of nature-based solutions. 

ZSL London Zoo

A blog for lovers of ZSL London Zoo, bringing you extraordinary animal facts and exclusive access to the world's oldest scientific zoo.

ZSL Whipsnade Zoo

Do you love wildlife? Discover more about our amazing animals at the UK's biggest zoo!


We're working around the world to conserve animals and their habitats, find out more about our latest achievements.


From the field to the lab, catch up with the scientists on the cutting edge of conservation biology at ZSL’s Institute of Zoology.


A day in Discovery and Learning at ZSL is never dull! The team tell us all about the exciting sessions for school children, as well as work further afield.

Artefact of the month

Every month, one of the pieces held in ZSL’s Library and at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo will feature here as Artefact of the Month.

Wild About

Read testimonials from our Members and extracts from ZSL's award winning members' magazine, Wild About.

Asia Conservation Programme

ZSL works across Asia, from the famous national parks of Nepal to marine protected areas in the Philippines. Read the latest updates on our conservation.

Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation

An Open Access journal for research at the interface of remote sensing, ecology and conservation.