Rewilding: A Model for Sustainable Conservation

While climate change gets most of the ink in environmental news sections, biodiversity is at a “point of no return” says Hilary Benn, the UK environment secretary. If ecosystems fail, their ability to sequester carbon or provide flood control diminishes. These ecosystems then also fail to provide the habitat necessary to preserve diverse species that rely on complex interactions with one another to survive. One possible solution is “rewilding,” a model that can be implemented piecemeal across landscapes to promote the reconnection of isolated habitats, form bridging corridors that help revive complex natural systems, and reintroduce predators. The approach is designed to restore biodiversity in places where it has been lost.

According to Carolyn Fraser, a noted environmental writer who recently discussed rewilding in Yale University’s Environment 360, the idea is also known as “cores, corridors and carnivores,” and was originally developed by Michael Soule and Reed Noss, two leading conservation biologists. Since conception, it has been picked up at the grassroots level across the world. The Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (Y2Y) is using these ideas to connect ecosystems in the Rocky Mountains.  The idea has spread as conservationists have “grown bolder in the size of their conservation programs.”

Fraser says the model has proven adaptable because it can function outside of structured park systems. In Kenya, “eleven group ranches have since joined the Northern Rangelands Trust, with eight of those creating their own conservancies, setting aside a percentage of their grazing land for wildlife and planning eco-lodges. Those with lodges have already dedicated revenue for community improvements, such as schools and medical clinics. A million-and-a-half acres of northern Kenya have thus been set aside for wildlife management, and security for people and wildlife has improved.” The model has also been successfully tested in Nepal where a community forestry program is restoring corridors for Asian tigers, rhinoceri, and elephants. 

The model was successfully applied in the American Southwest in part because incentives were used to keep predators alive. In many range areas, ranchers kill predator species that prey on their livestock. Instead, in one program, the ranchers were paid to demonstrate they had kept them alive, preserving their role in a wider ecosystem. “In the American Southwest, galvanized by surprise sightings of jaguars, conservationists have banded together to buy private land in northern Mexico, establishing a core wilderness area to keep that species — and a host of other unique wildlife — viable. They have also reached out to the reserve’s neighbors: Mexican ranchers, like American ones, have always shot big predators on sight, but biologists with Defenders of Wildlife designed a clever contest, equipping ranches with remote camera traps. For every picture of a live jaguar, mountain lion, or other cat, participating ranchers who promised to leave the animals unmolested were paid a handsome sum — $500 for a jaguar, $100 for a mountain lion.”

In South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, a failure in the model occurred when the Peace Parks Foundation (PPF) attempted to reconnect ecosystems, but failed to alert local communities to the new elephants, lions and other potentially dangerous animals that had been released into the zone. Community involvement in roll-out is critical.

Fraser contends that even if there are hiccups in implementation the model’s core strength lies in the fact that it presents a model for “sustainable conservation” that will put people to work and also mitigate climate change. As Fraser describes, a few key components can be fit together to form a new, more practical sustainable conservation model: 

Create endowments that can support reconnecting ecosystems and rewilding private or community-owned land. As an example, she points to Dan Janzen, an innovative conservationist: “University of Pennsylvania biologist Daniel Janzen has been instrumental in the phenomenal success of the Area de Conservación Guanacaste (ACG) in northwestern Costa Rica, which accomplished what was once thought impossible by restoring former cattle ranches to dry tropical forest and rainforest. ACG thrives on the interest from its $30 million endowment. Janzen is now seeking a half-billion dollars to endow the entire Costa Rican park system in perpetuity.”

Use rewilding programs to create new green jobs. Local people can take “bioliteracy” courses so they develop conservation job skills and aid trained conservationists in their taxonomy work. Through taxonomy work, conservationists and local communities can catalog a region’s biodiversity and map out where ecosystems can best be connected. (The green jobs component is particularly crucial given huge increases in population are expected in many developing countries with key natural resources.)

Link climate change mitigation (through bio-carbon sequestration) with native habitat conservation. “The Baviaanskloof Mega-reserve Project in South Africa has created hundreds of jobs in ecotourism and restoration, training workers to remove invasives and plant native bush in a delicate Cape habitat overgrazed by goats. In Australia, ecological restoration of salt-damaged wheat farms conducted by the Gondwana Link project has provided carbon sequestration while regrowing native bush.”

Fraser concludes that the Puget Sound Partnership demonstrates the great potential of the model: “In the United States, the restoration of wetlands is generating jobs, from Chesapeake Bay in the east to Puget Sound in the west. The Puget Sound Partnership, a network of environmental groups and state agencies — tasked with cleaning up decades of pollutants — represents one of the most massive ecological restoration projects in the nation’s history: The partnership recently identified a half-a-billion dollars worth of “shovel-ready” stimulus projects, from removing tons of fishing nets and other debris to restoring tidal salt marsh habitat, itself a powerfully-effective means of sequestering carbon.”

Read the article and check out Fraser’s book, “Rewilding the World: Dispatches from the Conservation Revolution

Image credit: Africa Conservation Centre

One thought on “Rewilding: A Model for Sustainable Conservation

  1. Mark L. Johnson 03/24/2010 / 1:10 pm

    There are extensive sciences and observations that reveal our cultural habits impacting community planning and design are detrimental to biodiversity. Fear, greed, a desire for a cushy life and peer pressure have developed a lifestyle and aesthetic that is quickly grading, paving over and inoculating the rural, natural, and agricultural areas that future generations will need for survival. Landscape architects should be at the forefront on calling for ferociously maintained urban growth boundaries. As long as human population continues to expand, there will be plenty of investment opportunities and jobs in infill development, the rehabilitation of existing structures, and improving the quality of life in our urban and rural communities. The habit of suburban sprawl is not based on need; but on great marketing. Society needs to turn that marketing genius on development patterns and lifestyles that are truly healthy. Biodiversity is a cornerstone of the health of humankind. We must learn to share the planet and our communities with creatures that we currently deem worthless and troublesome.
    Mark Johnson
    Ecotone Land Design, Inc.

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