Recently, the UN called on its members to rewild an area the size of China during this decade. Is this possible? The Rewilding movement holds many of the answers.

“We want to recreate a balance between predators and prey,” explains Aaron Smith.

He moves as though well-accustomed to the paths through the dry bush vegetation in Innes National Park. The national park covers about 100 square kilometers of the Yorke Peninsula in the state of South Australia.

As a park ranger, Aaron Smith is part of a larger WWF project that began in 2019 and involves rewilding the Yorke Peninsula with 27 endangered endemic animal species, while expanding the national park’s area.

Elsewhere in Australia, similar projects are underway by environmental organizations in cooperation with state governments. Among other things, Tasmanian devils have been reintroduced to the mainland – where they disappeared around 3,000 years ago.

Work to reintroduce animal species into their original habitats is underway around the world. The movement has recently been assisted by powerful political actors who want to protect huge natural areas, both on land and at sea. Here, 2030 is meant to act as a significant milestone.

Northern and Yorke Natural Resources team leader Max Barr inspects an owl nest box on the Yorke Peninsula in South Australia. Credit: WWF-Aus / Paul Fahy

“30 by 30” – protecting 1 billion hectares by 2030

On January 27, U.S. President Joe Biden issued an executive order ordering that 30 percent of the country’s marine and water areas be protected by 2030. Compared to today’s 12 percent and 26 percent respectively, the increase is large indeed. In May, he joined the other G7 countries on a similar global initiative of “30 by 30.” And on World Environment Day on June 5, the United Nations issued a call for world governments to reclaim one billion hectares of land by 2030 – an area the size of China.

In addition to functioning as carbon sinks in an increasingly warm climate and extending a lifeline to rapidly declining global biodiversity, functioning ecosystems and their services generate huge amounts of money. The report “The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030” states that if the world manages to restore a third of a billion hectares, it would already generate a staggering nine trillion dollars in ecosystem services while removing a substantial amount of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. According to the report, “Restoring coastal and marine ecosystems helps protect and bring back some of the richest biodiversity hotspots on Earth.”

However, the UN report continues by imploring that the world must do more than just plant more trees. The UN calls on all world governments, businesses, and residents to restore nature in urban environments, cultivate in more sustainable ways, restore savannahs and other landscapes while protecting marine areas.

“The beauty of restoring ecosystems is that it can happen on any scale, where everyone can participate,” the report states.

Not acting, on the other hand, is expensive. Estimates show that it will cost the world’s economies $10 trillion in crashed ecosystem services by 2050 if we continue with business as usual.

Port Victoria, Inneston National Park, Yorke Peninsula, South Australia. The Yorke Peninsula project, WWF-Australia and partners are aiming at reintroducing up to 27 threatened species back to the Peninsula and ensure the conservation of its unique landscape. Credit: Didi Photos / WWF-Aus

Taking rewilding into their own hands

However, a seasoned environmental movement looking back on decades of grand, unfulfilled climate pledges cannot lean back quite yet. Until the world’s governments decide to turn words into action, it is largely up to organizations and individuals to initiate rewilding projects. Many philanthropists are already spending their money on buying up land – to rewild or preserve areas intact – free from human interference. One of them is Kris Tompkins, the former CEO of the apparel brand Patagonia, who now runs Tompkins Conservation – an organization that buys up lands in the Patagonia region of South America and in Chile.

Her organization has bought 57,000 square kilometers of wilderness, equivalent to Croatia’s land area, in Chile over the past 27 years to leave the wilderness alone, as just wilderness.

The same goes for the Dutch foundation Rewilding Europe, which was founded by four nature-loving enthusiasts in 2011 and has since grown into an international movement. For the time being, the Foundation is working on eight major European rewilding projects. This includes Rewilding Lapland in northern Scandinavia, with the aim of placing Europe’s largest unbroken wilderness area on the map and expanding ecotourism. Here, the visitor can experience species such as the brown bear and the wolverine up close, while the project simultaneously expands the protection of endangered species and primeval forest.

Another successful project backed by Rewilding Europe is the reintroduction of the European bison, in the southern Carpathians of Romania. Previously endangered, the continent’s largest mammal is no longer considered endangered in Europe, and it is considered important for biodiversity as the species keeps the landscape from overgrowing.

Credit: Juan Carlos Muños Robredo / Rewilding Europe

Return of the wilderness

The Côa Valley in north-eastern Portugal is another landscape undergoing change. This is a sparsely populated rural area that, just as in much of the world, is experiencing substantial out-migration. The landscape seems deserted with its dilapidated brick houses and walls. Wild olive groves, almond groves and feral vines climb the cliffs.

Here, conservationists are recreating environments that existed during the Pleistocene era, when herds of herbivores such as mammoths, giant deer, aurochs, and wild horses shaped the landscape by keeping it open. Garrano horses and Maronesa cattle have taken the place of the original species and now keep the meadows open. The area attracts tourists, who come to go on a European jeep safari to see the large herbivores. The project in the Côa Valley thus demonstrates that rewilding can also raise money from tourism.

Another successful rewilding project is Brazil’s Atlantic rain forest, which unlike the Amazon, is increasing in size. In two decades, a rainforest the size of the Netherlands has reclaimed its former lands along the Atlantic Ocean, along with a range of endangered animal species such as the lion tamarin.

This has been achieved through the stubborn work of several environmental organizations which, together with the local population, have planted seedlings of native trees. At the same time, 70% of Brazil’s inhabitants live where forests used to grow, in mega-cities such as São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, so this work is not entirely straight forward. Nevertheless, the objective of the environmental organizations is to continue to recreate the Atlantic rain forest by the equivalent of roughly three more Netherlands by 2050.

Tim Christophersen, the coordinator behind the UN’s decade of rewilding, believes that the goal of rewilding an area the size of China during the 2020s is both educationally important and realistic.

“For many people, I think restoring a billion hectares is a bit abstract,” he recently told The Guardian, adding:

“We have space programmes and nuclear weapons. It is possible.”


About the Rewilding Movement

The Rewilding movement began in the Netherlands in 2011 and is now acting across the world. It is a way to enable nature to reclaim ancient territories or repair damaged ecosystems. This can involve reintroducing an animal or plant species that has previously lived there, or sometimes just leaving nature alone to take care of itself.


Lead image credit: Johan Augustin

Johan Augustin
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