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Elephants and hippos in Trafalgar Square? How rewilding is changing the way we see the world

Photography By Patrick Chin, Steven Cordes / Unsplash

If I was deciding on countries to visit based on wildlife-spotting potential, somewhere like England would be low on the list. That’s not to suggest I wouldn’t love to spot a wild hedgehog or badger. It’s just that woodland creatures aren’t much competition for, say, animals of the African savannah.

When contrasting Africa’s and England’s native animals, few similarities come to mind. That was until I started learning about rewilding. In his book Feral: Rewilding the Land, Sea and Human Life, British author and environmentalist George Monbiot writes that Britain was once home to a whole host of species, including lions, hyenas, elephants and hippos. 

“When Trafalgar Square was excavated in the nineteenth century…the river gravels the builders exposed were found to be crammed with hippopotamus bones,” Monbiot writes. Excavations in the following century revealed bones of straight-tusked elephants, giant deer, giant aurochs and lions, as well as fossilised faeces belonging to spotted hyenas. Where tourists, squirrels and pigeons flock in London today, megafauna once roamed. 

WHAT IS REWILDING?

Monbiot has researched and written extensively about the reintroduction of lost species, particularly through the rewilding movement. Before we discuss the possibility of elephants roaming the English countryside (something he does not see as an impossible notion), it helps to first understand what exactly rewilding is.

By its simplest definition, rewilding is a form of conservation and ecological restoration. One of the key differences to other forms of conservation is that human intervention is minimal; wilderness is largely left alone, allowing nature to do the work and care for itself. As Monbiot further explains, “Rewilding has no end points, no view about what a ‘right’ ecosystem or ‘right’ assemblage of species looks like. It does not strive to produce a heath, a meadow, a rainforest, a kelp garden or a coral reef. It lets nature decide”. 

Jonathan Brown / Unsplash

HOW A REWILDED WORLD COULD IMPACT CLIMATE CHANGE 

One of the most common forms is called trophic rewilding. This involves reintroducing large herbivores, predators and keystone species into an area of natural habitat, which in time helps to repair damaged ecosystems and landscapes. The promotion of self-regulating environments has the potential to not only increase biodiversity but also draw down carbon from the air and mitigate climate change. 

Yellowstone National Park is a lauded example of trophic rewilding and climate mitigation. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, wolves were hunted out of the area to protect livestock and species like deer and elk. As a consequence, the elk and red deer over-grazed local vegetation and the absence of an apex predator like the wolf had effects on numerous other species. 

In 1995, wolves were reintroduced into the park. In his book Drinking Molotov Cocktails with Gandhi, author Mark Boyle sums up the success of this decision: “Not only did the wolves keep the number of deer down to healthy populations, they altered their prey’s behaviour. 

“As ecologists soon found out, the presence of the wolf ensured the deer avoided the places – particularly the valleys and gorges – where they could be caught most easily. Because of this, trees…returned to the riverbanks and grew larger, which in turn shaded rivers, providing cool habitat for fish and other species who soon returned. Beavers came back, whose habits created the conditions for otters, muskrats, reptiles and much else to follow suit.” Bison returned and, by hunting coyotes, wolves helped populations of smaller mammals to rise which provided food for other prey. Biodiversity surged, as did the well-being of the land. 

Healthy land and restored living systems offer a potent natural climate solution – good news for more than just muskrats. Writing for the Guardian, Fiona Harvey points out “if a third of the planet’s most degraded areas were restored, and protection was thrown around areas still in good condition, that would store carbon equating to half of all human caused greenhouse gas emissions since the industrial revolution”. 

Noemie Kempf / Unsplash

REWILDING AROUND THE GLOBE 

The concept of rewilding emerged in the late 80s and, in the decades since, hundreds of projects have been launched around the world. We’ve seen rewilding efforts in Patagonia to reintroduce puma, jaguar and indigenous deer, the return of bison to Romania and the reintroduction of the Iberian lynx to dehesas (man-made, savannah-like ecosystems) in Spain and Portugal. There’s even talk of trial reintroductions of Tasmanian devils to mainland Australia to restore ancient food chains.  

Animals aren’t the only focus of rewilding efforts. On Wallasea Island on England’s eastern coast, dirt dug from beneath central London has been used to restore mudflats and salt marshes. Ciara Nugent writes that “coastal wetlands like these are capable of trapping carbon up to 40 times faster per hectare than tropical rainforest”. 

Similar efforts across Finland, the UK and Germany are restoring humble peatlands (sometimes called moors, bogs or mires) to create huge carbon sinks, showing how important rewilding is, even for the less-than-picturesque landscapes.

THE INDIVIDUALS DRIVING REWILDING EFFORTS 

It’s easy to assume rewilders are all a bunch of conservationists or scientists. But the movement has attracted enthusiasm from private individuals too, like 38-year-old Randal Plunkett. Once a “steak-eating bodybuilding death metal fan with no interest in land”, Plunkett decided seven years ago to turn over 300 hectares of his estate in the middle of Ireland to nature. The Plunketts have been installed at Dunsany Castle since 1402 and Randal became the 21st baron after his father died in 2011. Speaking to the Guardian, he says the climate crisis motivated him to start rewilding nearly half the land of his estate. 

The owners of Knepp Castle Estate in West Sussex tell a similar story. They decided to rewild 3,500 acres of private land once used for intensive farming. Their efforts over the last eight years have proved how successful rewilding can be, even on degraded post-agricultural land.  

Though it might be hard to describe them as your average citizens, former clothing tycoons Doug Tompkins (the late founder of The North Face and Esprit) and Kristine Tompkins (the former CEO of clothing brand Patagonia) used their fortune to purchase 220,000 acres of land for rewilding in Patagonia, removing livestock and fencing and reintroducing extinct species. After losing her husband, Kristine founded Tompkins Conservation and dedicated her life’s work to wildlife preservation efforts that have helped restore natural ecosystems and brought back species like giant anteaters, mountain lions, jaguars and the large flightless bird Darwin’s rhea to parts of South America. It’s an inspiring story, not least because it demonstrates how wealth can be used for the greater good of the planet.

For those without a small fortune or private land ownership, organisations like Rewilding Europe offer opportunities to get closer to rewilding projects. In 2017, it helped launch the European Safari Company to drive nature and wildlife-based travel experiences. From spotting Marsican brown bears, grey wolves and vultures in the Central Apennines (a region in Italy less than two hours from Rome), to tracking wild bison in Romania’s Southern Carpathians, it’s showing individuals exactly what a rewilded world is all about. 

Zdenek Machacek / Unsplash

A (RE)WILDER FUTURE

The exciting thing about rewilding is the hopeful vision it offers for the planet. It encourages us to imagine how beautiful the world could be and introduces people to a new experience of nature, one where we can witness the natural world’s complex systems, free from human intervention (and free from destruction). 

“I will not try to disguise my reasons for wanting to see missing animals reintroduced,” writes Monbiot. “My reasons arise from my delight in the marvels of nature, its richness and its limitless capacity to surprise.” And taking into consideration the full scope of rewilding, I think many would agree.

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