Looking for the past in the future?

After spending many years of saying I want to work in conservation and that I care about nature and wildlife, and the past year in Part II Zoology here, I think I finally got it clear in my head what the goal of conservation is. Conservation, to me, has one ultimate aim – to prevent species extinction. Maybe it was something that was clear in everyone else’s head when they first got into this field, but I’ve always been learning about why it’s important, how it’s important, how we even got ourselves into this state in the first place, and the different things people do that fall under the ‘conservation’ umbrella, that I never really thought hard about the goal of conservation. And with that in mind, everything else that is involved in conservation are tools to achieve this aim. Everything from species-based conservation to ecosystem-based conservation, breeding centres to protected areas, habitat restoration to translocations and reintroductions, laws and Acts to Payments for Ecosystem Services – these are all just different means (sometimes very different) to reach the end point of preventing the irreversible loss of a species from living on the face of the earth.

Amongst the many tools with which we can use for conservation, one that has received a fair amount of hype, at least here, is rewilding. It’s kind of like scaled up habitat restoration and protection, involving species reintroduction and little else. It’s a bold ideal, especially in the UK, which has been inhabited by periodically by modern humans since at least 40,000 years ago, and so has undergone fairly extensive transformation of the landscape pre-human influence. The concept of rewilding seems fairly well-received in Europe, with an NGO set up specifically to promote that idea, and which “aims to rewild at least one million hectares of land by 2022”. Here in the UK, it’s mostly been pushed by George Monbiot, a regular columnist at the Guardian, and whom I’m a big fan of.

There are a number of reasons why rewilding is a good conservation strategy. Central to the concept of rewilding is the self-regulation of the ecosystem, reducing or completely eliminating the need for human intervention to keep the ecosystem functioning. This sometimes takes the form of reintroducing keystone species, such as top predators (wolves) or ecosystem engineers (beavers or oysters), or sometimes just protecting huge expanses of land. Reducing human input in conservation would save a lot of resources which could then be directed into other conservation needs (where rewilding may not be the best conservation solution). For a great number of species, their main threat to existence is habitat loss, and rewilding would be a cost-effective way of tackling the proximate cause. By protecting a large expanse of land, it is most likely that many species are protected, reducing their likelihood of imminent extinction (in our hands). And perhaps most importantly, I think it’s a good way of helping nature cope with climate change. We know that the climate is changing, faster than what many contemporary species have ever experienced. By giving them space, so that their populations can flourish and not be threatened with a small remnant fragment, we give them the best chance of coming up with their own solutions to adapting to this changing climate, so that some 50, 100, 1000 years from now, they might still be around. Rewilding can help keep populations above the ‘danger zone’, allow ecosystems to thrive (with benefits to humans, potentially) without us spending too much money (on captive breeding, or constant managing).

Here in the UK, there have been a number of attempted rewilding projects. Most controversially, perhaps, is the Alladale Wilderness Reserve in Scotland. It is a private estate that aims to restore the native Highlands ecosystem by reintroducing wild boars and moose, and ultimately predators like Eurasian lynxes and wolves.

In less uninhabited parts of the UK, rewilding projects have also been underway. The Wicken Fen Vision in Cambridgeshire aims to rewild 5300ha of land back to the fens. Currently at 760ha, Wicken Fen, under the National Trust, has doubled in size since the start of the project in 1999. While a small part of Wicken Fen (the old ‘primary’ fen) is still heavily managed, large tracts are left for nature to take its course. Instead of tractors and people cutting back on growth, reintroduced Konik ponies and Highland cattle fill the niches of extinct horses and bovids, and the Wicken Fen Vision’s objective is to create a dynamic and changing ecology, build up natural resources to cope with climate change.

There have also been other reintroduction of species, such as the reintroduction of white-tailed eagles on the Isle of Rum in 1975. Locally extirpated in 1916, it’s now found nesting in Shieldaig Island, and has increased the tourism industry of the Isle of Mull by £5million/year. Wild boars were slaughtered to extinction in the 13th century, and attempts to reintroduce them in the 17th century failed, but there are now some accidental reintroductions (farm escapees) in the south of England, Wales and Scotland. Eurasian beavers were released to Argyll, Scotland on a five-year trial that just concluded last year, and results were seemingly positive (a formal report to the Scottish Government is due some time this year). At the moment, there are people trying to bring the Eurasian lynx back to the UK, which have been locally extirpated since about 700AD.

Arguably, these reintroductions might not be considered as ‘rewilding’, which intuitively implies a swathe of land set aside, unmanaged, while these species reintroductions might still reside on managed land, or be managed. And as appealing as I find rewilding as a conservation solution, there are also reasons for its lack of traction among conservationists.

Rewilding, by wanting to ‘return nature to nature’, makes its aims and objectives rather unclear. It is difficult to measure success of having achieved the ‘right’ level of self-regulation in the ecosystem, because there isn’t a ‘right’ level. And while some conservationists might be happy with just leaving it as it is (I probably am), without having to achieve any target, having clear objectives and achieving those objectives are important for funding and policy making purposes. As conservationists, we also want to know that we’re doing the right thing, that resources spent on rewilding were worth it.

A more general problem faced by ecosystem-based conservation approaches, is that it allows for species loss to occur. (To be honest though, all conservation options will still incur extinctions) If we say, the objective of rewilding this area, is for as many species as possible to be buffered from extinctio, and so expect as many species as possible to have steady or increasing population numbers, there is still the possibility of some species suffering at the expense of others, especially since we’re not managing the habitat to prevent ecological succession from happening (and so could lose important habitats for some priority species). It’s a perfectly natural phenomenon which we’ll have to accept, but one that might be hard to.

There are also other practical considerations, such as stakeholder conflicts. Farmers don’t want predators to take their chickens/sheep, walkers and outdoor enthusiasts want their right of way and it might just be outright expensive or silly to put aside perfectly arable land when we need to feed people.

Others (Emma Marris) have also criticised rewilding advocates for holding on to perhaps, romantic ideals of preserving “a wild space where humans were not in charge, where people could exercise their moral muscles and stand in humility before nature’s workings, knowing and feeling their place as one species among millions“, as inspired by early environmentalist philosophers Henry David Thoreau and John Muir. After all, we all know there’s nothing on earth (and in space?) humans as species haven’t touched/altered and nothing that’s truly wild, and so management is probably the way we have to go to keep things surviving. And if preventing species extinction is the goal of conservation, then manage and interfere we must, and not leave things to chance/fate/nature.

I still think though, that it is our best option for safeguarding as many species as possible now and in the future, especially for charismatic, awe-inspiring animals which usually require large ranges. Species will react to climate change, and move, or die out, and we could help supplement if we think it necessary, but I am hopeful that when we leave the natural world alone, it will be able to cope as best as it can ( Sorry this is all rather wishy-washy hand-wavey, and I should have more evidence). As Sean Carroll pointed out, “What’s the point of biology if you have no biology left to study?” I’ve wondered about that in Singapore, and that’s why I really think all biologists, at the very least, should be aware of conservation issues and advocate for conservation (even if you don’t want to study it or spend the rest of your life on it). I’m not expecting to rewild the world, but, perhaps naively and never having actually managed a reserve, I think if protected areas could be managed less, and let more wild, that’s a start. As Emma Marris acknowledged in her article, there is also a deeply spiritual reason for having areas of ‘wilderness’, and you don’t have to believe in a God to feel the same, to feel the need for a place where you can find solace, and meaning, and wonder in nature. And that is as important as saving species, cos the two can’t really be separated.

We might not be able to recreate the past in the present, let alone for the future, but I think nature, as fragile as it is, is also incredibly resilient and will be able to find ways for it to thrive, if only we give it the chance.

[Update 14 May 9:48am – Hmm meant to put this in but forgot]

Quote which I came across while revising.

Quote which I came across while revising.


About Jocelyne Sze

I'm a Nature-lover, aspiring conservationist, and wannabe traveller in search of outdoor adventure.
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