By Christine Rose
The world’s rewilding projects bring brave ideals of ecological recovery to life. Rewilding is a notion which emerged as recently as the 1990s and 2000s, which seeks to restore large scale ecosystems, natural processes (including predator-prey relationships), and wilderness. In particular, rewilding sees the elements of connectivity, cores and carnivores as key to recovery of the environment to ‘natural states’.
Since the Bronze Age, so many of the world’s habitats have become ravaged by the pressures of ‘civilisation’; with deforestation, overgrazing, siltation, destruction of grasslands and forests, the removal of apex predators, then eventually, almost all native species, leaving what were once wildlands as monocultures. But this also often results in unsustainable soil loss, sedimentation, pest invasion and denudation.
Think of England. Once its original cover was dense forests, which were home to bears, lynx, deer, elk, wild boar and bison. Now it is fields and a few fragments, and even hedgerows are diminishing. One doesn’t have to look far over the fence in New Zealand to see the devastating effects on biodiversity from turning a third of our country into denuded farmland, where wetlands are drained and lost, streams are channelled, forests are fragmented and pest riddled, and even high country tussocks are turned into agriculture with the assistance of vast irrigation schemes.
Rewilding principles support the reconnection of core remaining habitat fragments through wildlife corridors, and the reintroduction of a diverse range of keystone species to help restore functional ecosystems. Across the world, exciting projects are reintroducing species including carnivore megafauna back into engineered wildlands. The ‘European Greenbelt’ runs along the old iron curtain, a ‘transboundary’ project, which recognises that ecosystems transcend political boundaries. The Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) project unites two countries, five states, two provinces and territories, and the lands of over 30 native governments. In South Africa, massive ecosystem recovery is facilitated through the Peace Parks Foundation, and elsewhere schemes aim to restore Great Plains prairie and Siberian tundra grasslands, complete with bison (wisent), deer, elk, and wolves; predator and prey.
Rewilding schemes recognise that ecosystems are finely balanced; with important, complex ecological functions – deer browse tree regrowth and maintain grasslands, wolves prey on the deer, and all maintain the sensitive dynamic balance of the system. Species that have been locally extinct since the Middle Ages are being nurtured in vast reserves, some up to a million hectares and spanning mountains and plains.
Among these grand visions, New Zealand’s own ecological restoration projects fit well. Our island sanctuaries are success stories in themselves, and support important rewilding principles. Core repositories of ancient threatened endemic wildlife are connected through flyways and corridors, such as the NorthWest Wildlink, to other mainland and offshore islands. Rewilding provides us with a master vision of the world that was, and once again can be. Successes on land add resilience and support efforts elsewhere. It’s all connected, and building on these successes, ocean rewilding must be the next frontier.