Is ‘rewilding’ the future of conservation?

A new book explores how a novel approach to restoring habitats may hold promise for reducing the loss of animal and plant life.

By Alexandra HartSeptember 12, 2022 11:31 am, , , ,

We’re in the middle of what environmentalists call a “biodiversity crisis,” with some scientists going so far as to suggest we’re heading toward another mass extinction event. Whatever you want to call it, climate change and human-caused habitat loss are causing a measurable reduction to wildlife populations around the globe.

But what if we could at least partially reverse it? A novel approach to conservation aims to restore natural habitats through what’s called “rewilding,” and could help ecosystems more closely resemble their natural state.

The Texas Standard’s David Brown spoke with San Antonio native Millie Kerr, whose new book “Wilder: How Rewilding is Transforming Conservation and Changing the World” explores how conservationists worldwide are using this approach for ecological restoration. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: What’s the genesis of the term “rewilding?”

Millie Kerr: The term was originally coined in the 1990s in the U.S. and the most sort of known classic example was the reintroduction of gray wolves to Yellowstone in 1995. But interestingly, even though the term was coined here in the U.S., it’s become more mainstream in the U.K., in Europe, where it’s taken on a slightly different meaning and is actually what I call more passive in nature. So there’s sort of this evolution of the term and also the practice, and it’s really becoming more of a buzz word these days. Yeah. As we speak.

Tell us a little bit about how it is distinct from, say, conservation efforts, as we typically think of those efforts.

I think the main distinction that I often point to is that rewilding is just a bit more ambitious and holistic. So if conservation is focused, say, on a particular species or maybe one particular project site, rewilding is focused on creating what are called large core areas and wildlife corridors between them. And then there’s an emphasis on reintroducing extinct keystone species like gray wolves or sea otters or beavers. And the idea is that it’s looking to reverse damage that’s been done on a large scale and create these important wilderness areas that can be used both to protect against future threats like climate change, but also to give species and areas a chance to rebound. Now.

Now, I know you’re a San Antonio native, and in fact, there’s a whole chapter about rewilding in San Antonio in your book, which we’ll get to in just a moment. But I’m curious about how or whether your upbringing in San Antonio influenced your interest in conservation and perhaps this idea of rewilding.

I think it definitely did kind of in a soft way. I was lucky enough to grow up in a part of San Antonio where there was a lot of trees and a lot of bird life. And I grew up in a family where we spent a lot of time outdoors. And so that really helped my love of nature grow from an early age. And then interestingly, which I do get into in the book as well, my maternal grandparents had a ranch about 3 hours from San Antonio that contained an “exotic game pasture,” with foreign animals like ostriches and zebras and oryx. And I think that’s what got my interest in Africa. And also, you know, other foreign species going from a young age.

Focusing on San Antonio just a bit, I think the title of that chapter is “The Rewilding We Don’t See.” Can you say a little bit about the conservation challenges and the work being done in the Alamo City and why you felt that was so important to focus on?

For one thing, I wanted to focus on an urban project just because so many readers like me live in cities. And so I think it’s important that people know that rewilding is happening even in urban areas and on smaller scales. And at the same time, I felt that San Antonio was really interesting because we have serious issues with flooding and water here. And as it turns out, those issues are very much intertwined with the San Antonio River, the River Walk. San Antonio is a tourism destination. But then more recently, what’s been happening in terms of restoration and rewilding, namely the restoration of the Mission Reach. And so it created this opportunity for me to actually also learn a lot more about San Antonio, about issues I only understood superficially, but then also to showcase these really wonderful things about San Antonio that locals probably do know. Like the fact that we have this expanded River Walk.

As you survey the world, are there rewilding initiatives that seem to hold greater potential than others and is perhaps something that people point to as a kind of example?

There are definitely projects that people would point to as incredible successes on a large scale, including quite a few of the projects I wrote about. One is the restoration of this park in Argentina called Ibará, where numerous species, including several keystone species like jaguars and giant river otters, have been reintroduced. But in truth, I think that people are interested in rewilding happening on all different scales. So if you were in the UK where I live and you were talking to people, what they know about rewilding is the restoration of a former farm that is now being rewilding in the sense that fences are coming down, livestock is being moved out. Invasive plants are being removed. So it really does have different meaning to different people. And as much as I am sort of biased in favor of those large scale projects that I guess in my mind have more potential in some sense, I want people who read my book to come away thinking rewilding has potential in a lot of places, in a lot of scenarios, and there isn’t a one size fits all approach to rewilding.

I was thinking about something you said a few minutes ago. You were talking about how this approach is more ambitious than perhaps conservation as we’ve known it. But then you think about the resistance to a lot of those conservation efforts, and I’m wondering if this even more ambitious approach holds more promise than than what we generally think of as conservation.

I think it does. I think it’s also higher risk, though, particularly when you’re talking about some of these places that were like war torn or have experienced a lot of conflict. Or when you talk about trying to do rewilding with a species like the scimitar horned oryx, which I write about and has a connection back to Texas, where there’s only several hundred of these animals even remaining. Now, there are conservationists who would absolutely take on conservation projects like that. But I think the feeling is that some of these rewilding projects are really ambitious. Frankly, they’re high-risk. But the other feeling among rewilding is, is that if nothing else, we’re going to learn a lot from these projects.

I hear a tone of optimism in you, and certainly it seems to be a big part of the book as well. You think about the effects of climate change and other threats to biodiversity. Are you ultimately optimistic about the future of conservation?

I am optimistic. I’d say I’m guardedly optimistic. One thing that makes me optimistic is that more and more young people are learning about conservation at an extremely young age. I think that they are more engaged with the sort of wider environmental movement. So I can only hope that that trend continues. And I genuinely believe that projects like the ones I learned about will inspire the next generation of rewilders. Now, I don’t think that every single sort of degraded place on the planet can be saved. I don’t think that every species can be saved, but I certainly believe that we should try. And I feel that now is the time to do that, more so than, say, ten or 20 years from now. We have this great momentum right now and we need to capitalize on it.

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