Created by Materia for OpenMind Recommended by Materia
Start ‘Rewilding’: Conservation and Recovery of Natural Ecosystems
Article from the book Sustainability Notes nº2: Natural and Technological Solutions to Stop Climate Change

‘Rewilding’: Conservation and Recovery of Natural Ecosystems

Estimated reading time Time 6 to read

Interview with Sebastián Di Martino, Director of Conservation, Rewilding Argentina Foundation

What is rewilding? What is its goal?

‘Rewilding’ is a term that was born in the 1990s, tied to the conservation of large carnivores in extensive spaces – a period in which the fundamental role that large spaces have on the survival of these species started to be recognized. From there, rewilding became a very popular term.  It is a term that emerged from realms of conservation activists – not from academic realms. Therefore, it is a little bit difficult to pigeonhole. Each of them have their own definition within a general framework. For us, rewilding is an environmental restoration strategy that aims to recover or restore complete and functional ecosystems.  

Complete ecosystems are those that have all their species present – in other words, the species that lived in them in historic times. But species not only have to be present; they have to be present in a sufficient amount to be able to fulfil their ecological roles. These are functional ecosystems. 

BBVA-OpenMind-rewilding-Oso hormiguero El oso hormiguero o yurumí es la especie emblema del Paque Nacional El Impenetrable en Argentina.
The anteater or yurumí is the emblematic species of El Impenetrable National Park, Chaco, Argentina.

For example, in Chaco, we are working at a national park where there is only one male jaguar left. In this case, the species is present, so the ecosystem is complete, but as there is only one, it does not have an impact on the ecosystem as the top predator (meaning, at the top of the food pyramid). In this case, ensuring that there are sufficient numbers to have a functional ecosystem is the goal of rewilding. 

And how is the species to recover selected? Ecologists have defined what they call ‘keystone species’. They are species with very important ecological roles in the ecosystems and when they are not present, they start to degrade – they no longer function well. 

In the framework of this rewilding strategy, we try to return the keystone species that the ecosystems have lost. These keystone species are generally large predators or herbivores that are normally at higher levels of the food chain. And all the adjustments that they make in the ecosystems, they do so through these relationships in the food chain. 

From there, for example, comes the importance of working with the jaguar, as it regulates the populations of herbivores – not only in their abundance, but also in their behavior, which influences the vegetation and carbon sequestration rate. These large predators eliminate the weaker or ill herbivores, thus ensuring a more stable balance of pathogens in the ecosystem and preventing the spread of diseases. 

What criteria are used to select a space or specific ecosystem to restore? Who makes this decision? 

At the Rewiliding Argentina Foundation, the decision is made by the executive director, the administration director, a scientific director and me, the director of conservation. In terms of how we select the ecosystem to recover, first it should be an important place due to its biodiversity. It must be a large territory that is not under threat, and species must be reintroduced that were sometimes eliminated because they created conflict in the area, like the jaguar, for example. 

BBVA-OpenMind-Rewilding-carnivoros "Estos grandes depredadores eliminan a los herbívoros más débiles o enfermos, logrando así un equilibrio de patógenos más estable en el ecosistema y evitando la transmisión de enfermedades".
“These large predators eliminate the weaker or ill herbivores, thus ensuring a more stable balance of  pathogens in the ecosystem and preventing the spread of diseases”.

It is not easy to get the social license, first of all, and then the political and technical permits needed to create a large park and bring back predators. What the Rewilding Argentina Foundation does is create economies that restore the environment, in other words, local economies that the more they prosper, the more the environment prospers. It’s a model we call “production of nature”. 

And how is this done? First, the foundation raises funds to buy land – mainly cattle fields. Once the livestock is removed, this land is donated to the state to create a national or provincial park. The problem is that creating a national park is very complicated in Argentina, as it also requires the approval of the province where the land is located. 

From the moment that the foundation purchases the land, they are opened to the public and we invest in infrastructure for public use. In the same way that cattle fields have cows, for example, on this land we have a park with wildlife: we raise jaguars, marsh deer, pumas, etc. That is our “production”. By producing this wildlife, we recover the ecological roles, and at the same time, generate spectacles of docile and abundant fauna, because the fauna is increasingly more abundant and visible. 

BBVA-OpenMind-rewilding-turismo local "La Fundación Rewilding Argentina genera economías restaurativas del ambiente, es decir, economías locales que cuanto más prosperan, más prospera también el ambiente. Es un modelo que llamamos “producción de naturaleza”.
Woman kayaking on a lake in the El Impenetrable National Park, Chaco, Argentina.

And how is this production “harvested”? Through nature tourism based on observation of the fauna. The local population is in charge of this – the people who live in the area. In order for this to be possible, having good public infrastructure is needed, on the one hand, and people that come to see fauna, not landscapes, on the other. 

In other places of Argentina, like the Iguazu Falls, or the glaciers, tourism of nature is based on observation of landscapes. It is a contemplative tourism – not an experience –  and local residents do not enter into the equation. Buses come from far away, with 200 or 300 people accompanied by guides from Buenos Aires – not from the area. 

However, if you generate tourism activities with a high level of experience, organizing horseback riding or hikes, kayak or canoe rides – that is where the local population starts to play an important role and can become entrepreneurs. It is therefore creating an economy in which local people start to earn money, organizing these tourism activities, offering food that is typical of the area, lodging or crafts. But not only that – there is also a recovery of culture, pride and identity for local communities. 

BBVA-OpenMind-Rewinding-ciervo de los pantanos Ciervo de los pantanos (Blastocerus dichotomus).
Marsh deer (Blastocerus dichotomus).

This is the way that the local populations starts to see that the park and its fauna have a useful role – they are drivers of economic development and job creation. And that’s how the social support for the creation of the park and the reintroduction of species starts. As soon as there is social support, it is transferred to the political world. At some point, the territory becomes a national park and the government is in charge of taking care of it and building the public infrastructure The time comes for us to end our intervention. That is the reason it is so important to create a sustainable economic model that can be sustained over time.  

Are there differences between how rewilding is applied in countries like Argentina and in European countries, for example? Which countries are more advanced? 

There are different levels of progress. The foundation’s Iberá project is probably the largest species reintroduction project in the Americas. In Latin America, it is a conservation strategy that is used very little, although like everywhere, it’s growing. In Brazil, there are some multi-species reintroduction projects like the Tijuca National Park and other projects to reintroduce specific species. 

Without a doubt, Africa is where rewilding is done one a much larger scale, with a much greater impact on conservation. In Europe, there are also reintroduction projects like the Iberian lynx in Spain, the European bison in several places, or the beaver in Scotland. However, they are more classic restoration, regeneration of pastures or forests, the basic parts of the food chain. We focus more on the higher parts of the chain. 

Traditionally, conservation has consisted of “not touching”, of protecting what is still left standing. And that is necessary, but not sufficient. This other strategy of active management needs to be carried out. A cultural change is needed and that is hard. And there are also reactions against it. 

What is the main criticism that rewilding receives? 

There is a lot of criticism that is more related to a cultural change regarding how to do conservation. There is a sector of the conservation world that is not used to this type of strategy and they oppose it, using technical arguments when in reality, it’s more of a cultural discussion.  

"Una de las críticas habituales es que al empezar las poblaciones con un número bajo de individuos, éstos tendrán problemas genéticos a futuro".
“One of the common critiques is that by starting populations with a low number of individuals, they will experience genetic problems in the future”.

For example, one of the common critiques is that by starting populations with a low number of individuals, they will experience genetic problems in the future. Another critique is that if animals are moved from one place to another, pathogens will also be transferred. Or that if the species for which reintroduction is being attempted never lived in that place, it isn’t actually a reintroduction, but an introduction. This criticism can all be addressed. 

Although it starts with a few individuals, the genetic problem can be managed. On the other hand, there are examples of species recovery that started with just a single male or female because only one was left. Of course it is ideal to start with a more or less large number of specimens, but if it isn’t possible, it doesn’t mean that it won’t be successful. But directly not doing a project because of the risk of pathogen transfer doesn’t make sense. If we based the decision of whether or not to do transfers on this, we wouldn’t transfer livestock or people.

Do coordination channels exist among the different rewilding organizations in the world? For example, between Rewilding Argentina and Rewilding Europe? 

We look for organizations that work on similar issues and share information. We send our teams to Africa, for example, to see how they work there and learn from their experiences. But there is no formal network established to exchange information. 

BBVA-OpenMind-rewilding-lince iberico En los últimos veinte años, el programa de reintroducción de la especie ha multiplicado por nueve el número de linces que habitan entre España y Portugal.
In the last twenty years, there has been a nine-fold increase in the the number of lynxes that live between Spain and Portugal thanks to the species reintroduction program.

In our case, when we started to work on reintroducing the jaguar, we went to Brazil to learn about the pens, to know how to handle these animals and learn to live with them in freedom. People from Africa also came to advise us. We definitely took advantage of the experiences of other organizations in other countries. 

What role does outreach play in conservation?

Outreach is fundamental. We make a big effort to communicate about our projects and use social networks and the press a lot to do so. Our communication is based on transferring messages of hope, talking about specific solutions to environmental problems. To do so, we receive lots of people who come to see the projects. Politicians, scientists, donors and journalists, who come to see firsthand the results achieved. We believe that it is the best way to involve everyone. 

We also use a lot of “personal” stories about the animals to transmit key messages, as people really empathize with these kinds of stories.  

Sebastián Di Martino


Comments on this publication

Name cannot be empty
Write a comment here…* (500 words maximum)
This field cannot be empty, Please enter your comment.
*Your comment will be reviewed before being published
Captcha must be solved