Ecology: Into the (re)wild

Shahid Naeem examines the seductive concept of repopulating habitats with locally extinct species.

Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding

Allen Lane: 2013. 336 pp. £20 9781846147487 | ISBN: 978-1-8461-4748-7

In his 1901 book Our National Parks, early conservationist John Muir asserted that “wildness is a necessity”. Environmental journalist George Monbiot agrees, but in Feral we discover just how challenging it can be to fulfil that need.

Monbiot starts by recounting his adventures during the 1980s gold rush in the Brazilian state of Roraima, among murderers, desperate miners and the Yanomami tribe's faith healers. Far from showing bravado, these tales reveal how negligence, inaction and greed have led to environmental devastation in the region. After six years, Monbiot returns home to Wales to find himself “living a life in which loading the dishwasher presented an interesting challenge”. Burdened with angst, he looks to wilderness as an antidote to a descent into a “small and shuffling life”.

Wolves are among the species that people are seeking to restore to their former habitats. Credit: KEN CANNING/GETTY

But Monbiot finds that Wales has been tamed by forces similar to those that are devastating the Brazilian wilderness. He uses his home territory as a microcosm to explore 'rewilding' — the process of reintroducing locally extinct species — and elevates this from a paradigm in conservation science to a major environmental issue. He goes even further, envisioning rewilding as a way to revitalize imprisoned human sensibilities by restoring the endless source of delights, surprises, adventures and thrills that wilderness provides.

Rewilding seems simple: let jaguars roam the American West and rhinos repopulate the Nepalese–Indian border, or allow wolves, lynxes, wildcats, wolverines, beavers, boars and even moose to return to Wales. Yet Monbiot discovers that rewilding is not a straightforward process.

For a start, which species should be prioritized? Some were hunted to extinction not long ago — for example, boars in the thirteenth century. Others, such as moose and wolverines, disappeared thousands of years ago for unknown reasons. Should we go back to the Pleistocene epoch (which ended some 12,000 years ago) and use African substitutes to bring back the hippos, rhinos, hyenas, lions and elephants that once populated Europe? Who bears responsibility if released animals introduce disease, damage crops, attack pets, kill livestock or maul humans?

And how do we define the 'wilderness' on which rewilding is based? Monbiot fails to do so, yet is exasperated by policies that designate sheep pasture as 'wilderness' or promote tree removal as 'wilderness management'.

In The Idea of Wilderness (Yale University Press, 1991), philosopher Max Oelschlaeger notes that the concept did not arise until humanity began to imagine itself as distinct and insulated from nature. Wilderness became those vestiges of our dominion that await clearing. To combat this definition, many conservation arguments now have a utilitarian perspective, portraying wilderness as habitat that serves humanity in ways that farms, pastures and plantations cannot. Wild areas prevent soil erosion, provide homes for pollinators and act as sources of food, medicine and more.

Whatever the motivation, some feel that rewilding could re-energize conservation science. Wildlife biologist Tim Caro, for instance, sees the process as galvanizing a science “of documenting population declines, species losses and habitat destruction in excruciating detail but sadly doing little about it”. Caroline Fraser's Rewilding the World (Metropolitan Books, 2009) and Dave Foreman's Rewilding North America (Island Press, 2004) echo this idea. Monbiot, however, sees the prime purpose of rewilding as a cure for ecological ennui.

At one point, Monbiot sets out to sea in his kayak to catch a longfin tuna, a fish reported to be returning to the region. The weather unexpectedly turns lethal, but Monbiot survives to reflect on what he describes as the idiocy of being lured into such danger and neglecting his duty to his daughter and partner. His repentance is short-lived, and another adventure soon tempts him back to nature.

Monbiot's prowess at wild fishing is as impressive as the fact that he survived cerebral malaria, beatings by military guards and being stung into a coma by wasps. But Feral made me uncomfortable. Rewilding is too often misconstrued by the public as a science by and for animal lovers and thrill-seekers. Although Monbiot covers the issues admirably, his passion for peril could confuse the central value of rewilding. The subject may be a cure for ecological boredom, but its power to invigorate the imagination needs to be tethered to the goal of attaining a more robust future for us and our fellow species.

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Correspondence to Shahid Naeem.

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Naeem, S. Ecology: Into the (re)wild. Nature 497, 436–437 (2013).

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