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20 May 2022

Restoring Lost Worlds to Combat Climate Change

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Gabriel García Márquez titled one of his columns: “The countryside, that horrible place where raw chickens wander around“.  The writer was alluding to the growing distance between the urban (the city) and the rural (the countryside) for Europeans of the 1980s. These were the first generations of children who knew nothing about the nature of chickens, except those that emerge roasted from the oven, and the first generations of chickens unaware of the terror of being chased around by tireless human offspring.

Reindeer in Finland. Credit: Carl-Johan Utsi / © Rewilding Europe

The countryside was becoming a lost world; although the truth is that the planet lives in a spiral of constant change, where the greatest certainty is, in fact, change. In the case of the natural environment, before it became rural, it had been another lost world with a much more exciting name: the wild. Today some scientists  suggest that recovering that lost wild world could help us fight against the most worrisome change of our era—the climatic one.

In the late Pleistocene—about 14,000 years ago— modern humans (Homo sapiens) had already arrived in Europe. At that time —by the end of the last ice age—, lions, reindeer, wild horses and bison roamed Europe and legendary mastodons lumbered across North America. Scientific evidence indicates that the wild world was peering over the precipice, due in part to the intense hunting activity practiced by humans.

After thousands of years of agriculture and raising livestock, and the massive deterioration of ecosystems worldwide, this loss not only means the near total disappearance of charismatic species such as the white rhino, the panda, the Bengal tiger and the Sumatran elephant, but also of their roles in the ecosystems.

El deterioro masivo de los ecosistemas implica la casi total desaparición de especies carismáticas como el rinoceronte blanco. Crédito: Wikimedia Commons
The massive deterioration of ecosystems worldwide means the near total disappearance of charismatic species such as the white rhino. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The return of missing animals

To restore these lost worlds, conservation science increasingly relies on what is known as trophic rewilding: the reintroduction of animals that have disappeared or those with very small populations, from elephants to giant tortoises, from rhinoceroses to bison, to restore food chains—the famous “who eats who” in the wild—so that ecosystems can regulate themselves.

The most famous case, and almost the only one, is the reintroduction of the wolf in Yellowstone National Park (USA) in the 1990s: the density of deer decreased and large areas of forest were recovered. Since the first 14 wolves were released in 1995, followed by another 17 the following year, the population has grown to more than 120. The restoration of the ecological balance has boosted the survival of other species, including fish, birds and beavers.

Rewilding now refers not so much to a form of conservation of species on the verge of absolute extinction, such as the Iberian lynx in Spain, but to the re-vegetation of expansive areas of territory, especially with large herbivores, with the aim of helping the recovery of primitive ecosystems that have now disappeared. Europe is one of the most notorious examples: industrialisation, overpopulation and the disconnection of natural spaces have radically transformed the face of what was the continent of our ancestors at the end of the Palaeolithic. 

Wolves surround a bison in Yellowstone National Park. Credit: National Park Service

In 2011, the Rewilding Europe project was launched in the Netherlands to restore a number of wilderness areas, now numbering nine: the Great Côa Valley (Portugal), the Danube Delta (Romania, Ukraine and Moldova), the Southern Carpathians (Romania), the Velebit Mountains (Croatia), the Central Apennines (Italy), the Rhodope Mountains (Bulgaria), the Oder Delta (Germany and Poland), the Affric Highlands (Scotland) and Swedish Lapland. In addition, other initiatives such as the European Green Belt in the east of the continent seek to reconnect natural areas that were isolated during the decades of the Iron Curtain.

But in addition to developing its own projects, Rewilding Europe also acts as a network that brings together numerous local resilience initiatives, currently totalling more than 70 in 27 European countries. The European Rewilding Network not only offers information, promotion and support, but also provides herds of wild herbivores to these projects through the European Wildlife Bank. In this way, the various restocking programmes can obtain wild horses, water buffalo, wild cattle and European bison, whose rearing in the wild allows the number of animals on loan to be returned to the bank.

El Parque del Pleistoceno lleva años acariciando la posibilidad de incorporar los mamuts. Crédito: Parque del Pleistoceno
The massive deterioration of ecosystems worldwide means the near total disappearance of charismatic species such as the white rhino. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In North America, projects such as American Prairie or Southern Plains Land Trust are also involved in the rewilding of the original ecosystems of the Great Plains, the “American Serengeti”. In the Rocky Mountains, the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative is working to restore mountain habitats. One possibility yet to be explored is whether rewilding could help in the fight against climate change. In the Arctic, for example, the situation is so extreme that in a few years the summer pack ice may only exist as a memory. Along with rising global temperatures, declining herbivore populations have led to the replacement of native tundra with forests that contribute to the melting of permafrost. As a result, the ice inexorably melts and the albedo, the solar radiation reflected by the Earth that is greater on ice and snow, decreases, which in turn increases warming. Some climatologists call this the “Arctic death spiral”.

In this fragile world, reindeer, caribou and musk ox are the only large herbivores that still persist. Reindeer and caribou, however, have declined by about 56% in less than 20 years. As these grazers are the only consumers of woody vegetation, recent research suggests strengthening their populations to control vegetation and increase albedo. This is also the aim of the Pleistocene Park, a 20-square-kilometre nature reserve founded in Siberia in 1996 by father and son scientists Sergey and Nikita Zimov, where reindeer and musk oxen are now joined by Yakut horses, elk, bison, yaks, Kalmyk cattle, sheep, camels and goats. The Zimovs have for years been toying with the possibility of adding mammoths to their park, assuming the attempts to de-extinct the species are ever successful. However, some experts doubt that these projects will have any appreciable impact on climate change. 

Conservation versus restoration 

Resilviculture projects are also looking at the possibility of reintroducing large herbivores into tropical rainforests, which are being replaced by palm and soybean plantations. The loss of wildlife limits seed dispersal and thus the regenerative capacity of forests that absorb CO2. In addition, there are plans to replace traditional livestock—cows, goats and sheep—with large non-ruminant herbivores, for example horses, which produce less methane (a greenhouse gas) in their digestive systems.

Resilviculture plans to replace traditional livestock with large non-ruminant herbivores, which produce less methane. Credit: Pxhere

As captivating it may be to see bison repopulating the lands of Europe—they already exist on some farms—rewilding is not without its critics. Biologist Miguel Delibes de Castro, former director of the Biological Station of Doñana (Spain) and one of the leading experts on the conservation of the Iberian lynx, is not convinced by the idea: “The world is changing very fast and it’s a bit utopian to think that we can rebuild an ecosystem from long ago,” he says. “As an idea, it’s nice, attractive and generates enthusiasm, but it’s doubtful that this is a reasonable way to conserve nature on a global scale, to reverse the trend of destruction.”

According to Delibes de Castro, nature is being lost at a much faster rate than rewilding can hope to counteract, so it would be preferable to devote greater efforts to conserving what is deteriorating now, rather than to recover what has already deteriorated. “Climate change is moving very fast,” he warns. “We can’t say: let’s see if in 100 years we are drinking mare’s milk and eating horse meat… It might be, but by then where will the sea level be, the CO2 level…? It’s more urgent to try to stop CO2 emissions.”


Eugenia Angulo


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