This page has been archived and is no longer updated

June 08, 2013 | By:  Kate Whittington
Aa Aa Aa

Re-wilding - How far is too far?

The U.K media's gone a bit re-wilding mad in the last couple of weeks after notoriously outspoken environmentalist George Monbiot published both this article and accompanying animation on the subject. He highlights the fact that "lions hunted reindeer across the frozen wastes of Britain until 11,000 years ago" and promotes re-wilding as a chance to reverse man's destructive impact on the natural world by reintroducing lost species and then "stepping back and letting nature get on with it".

The subject has provoked both excitement at the prospect of seeing some of our arguably more charismatic native species returned, as well as conflict over his suggestions to convert "unproductive" farmland to wilderness. Some have even criticized the motivations of his enthusiastic re-wilding promotion as being little more than "a cure for ecological ennui".

Re-wilding proposals range from bringing back extant species such as wild boar (hunted to extinction in the U.K in the 13th Century), to as far back as the Pleistocene epoch, where the ancestors of African species such as elephants and lions once roamed Europe.

So which "wild" do we aim for, and how far back is too far for modern day landscapes to take?

The three C's

So what's different about re-wilding?

Well, the main contrast to your regular restoration practices, which typically seek to reverse relatively recent damages such as logging or heavy grazing, is that re-wildling works on a broader historical timescale, with an emphasis on reinstating large mammal species.

The practice of re-wilding is to reintroduce extant species (either captive bred or wild caught) back into their indigenous habitats. The focus is on restoring species that were extirpated from a region in historical times, meaning within the last several hundred years1.

The defining features of re-wilding are described by Soulé and Noss as the "three C's":






This stems from the theory that the structure and resilience of ecosystems is largely sustained by "top down" trophic interactions - the presence of Carnivores.

Then, because predators are typically wide-ranging, large areas of protected land - "Cores", are required in order to accommodate their foraging behaviours and seasonal movements.

Finally, because existing protected areas are often too small to adequately support certain megafauna, these cores must be linked by Corridors so that wide-ranging species do not become restricted to areas which are unable to sustain them.

When is wild?

From a less scientific perspective, re-wilding also addresses the aesthetic and ethical issues of our relationship with wilderness. Many would argue that we have a moral responsibility to try to repair some of the damage that we have inflicted on our environment. With re-wilding, this refers in particular to our almost total eradication of large carnivores from much of their natural ranges.

If we want to restore the "wild", however, we must first decide what we mean by that - which is no easy task! "Wilderness" has become more of a psychological term than an ecological one, and it's a concept that has been contemplated and debated over by some of the greatest minds of the environmental movement.

Emotions aside, however, determining the level of re-wilding that you want to achieve is not so much a case of what wild is, but when.

Re-wilding originated, and is still largely rooted in North America, where the commonly used benchmark for restoration is the arrival of Columbus in 1492.

So where do the lions and elephants come into this? Well, some scientists make the bold argument we should rewind even further than this: to the prehistoric era, and the late-Pleistocene arrival of the very first Americans...

Pleistocene parks

The Pleistocene was characterized by the presence of an impressive range of megafauna, such as mastodons, sabre-toothed cats, giant ground sloths, dire wolves, and huge teratorn birds with 25-foot wingspans. All of these (and the majority of other megafauna) went extinct at the end of the Pleistocene.

The loss of these large mammals dramatically shaped subsequent ecological and evolutionary processes resulting, some would argue, in a serious imbalance in our current fauna7.

Pleistocene re-wilding is, therefore, the attempt to return ecosystems to their 13,000 year old state by reintroducing large vertebrate species.

You may have noticed a slight issue with this in that, most of these megafauna are instead the idea is to reintroduce either:

a) extant species that are descended from species which were present in the habitat in question during the Pleistocene, but died out 13,000 years ago, or
b) modern-day "ecological proxies" for species which went extinct in Pleistocene8.

This is already being attempted in some locations, such as the Siberian Pleistocene Park experiment which began in 1988 by introducing mega herbivores such as wood bison, Yakutian horses and musk oxen to an area of 16 square kilometres, with the hopes of recreating the grassland ecosystems of the Pleistocene9.

This all sounds quite reasonable, a few grazing species that used to be around there keeping the grass in check, probably not doing anyone any harm...but what if you throw a few lions into the mix...

Workable or laughable?

The real Pleistocene re-wilding controversy kicked off when Donlan et al. published a paper in Nature which outlined proposals to translocate African and Asian megafauna to North America to replace their extinct Pleistocene counterparts. The process would begin with modest restorations of surviving Pleistocene species such as the Bolson Tortoise to their prehistoric range, with a potential end goal of introducing species such as African cheetahs, Asian and African elephants, and lions into vast "Ecological History Parks" in economically depressed parts areas of the North American plains.

These seemingly outrageous suggestions sparked an inevitably fierce backlash.

Some claimed it was "only a slightly less sensational proposal" than Jurassic Park, and that both the modern-day proxies and the ecosystems into which they are reintroduced are "wrong", in that neither come close enough to resembling the animals or habitats that would have been present in the Pleistocene.

A key criticism was that merely recreating species compositions does not guarantee the restoration of ecological processes. The biggest concern therefore was not of failing to replicate Pleistocene ecosystems, but of generating new unexpected, and unwanted ecological interactions - resulting in "Frankenstein-like ecosystems" that now resemble neither a healthy present nor Pleistocene landscape8,11.

Then you have the dangers of introducing novel parasites and diseases8, the costs of fencing and managing reserves, the costs of salaries for scientists and practitioners to run trial introductions, the potential of reducing ecotourism in Africa and Asia, the diminished appreciation of native fauna in favour of exotic species12, the list goes on...

So what other defences do Donlan and his colleagues offer? Well, for one, they aim to revolutionize the current "doom and gloom" of wilderness preservation with a more proactive, "hands-on" approach to twenty-first century conservation biology. This is driven, in part, by the ethical responsibility of humans to redress not only our current eradication and detrimental effects on large vertebrates, but also our potential involvement in the Late Pleistocene extinctions. They see the preservation of our "global megafauna heritage" as a chance to rekindle some of the lost evolutionary and ecological potential that was lost 13,000 years ago.

It also provides opportunities to ensure the long-term survival of large mammal species by increasing worldwide populations, offering them greater potential to generate new phenotypic and genotypic variants, helping to bolster populations' abilities to adapt to global environmental change.

In terms of the dangers and logistics of such large-scale re-wilding, they outline much more detailed plans and justifications involving carefully managed ecosystem manipulations, extensive trial introductions, and case-by-case species and location evaluations a more extensive article here.

However, there is one problem which even the most dedicated supporters admit may be insurmountable - would the public ever really accept living in proximity to large predators? One only has to look at the situation with wolves in the U.S to see the strong polarity of opinions over the protection, reintroduction and culling of predatory species. If this is a problem in North America where there are still large areas of relatively uninhabited land, imagine the potential conflicts of returning large predators to the U.K...

Only in our wildest dreams?

Back in 1998 Soulé and Noss stated that "the greatest impediment to rewilding is an unwillingness to imagine it". But it seems to me that we're very keen to dream about it, and not so keen to do.

As is so often the case with environmental issues the main barrier has never really been the science but the politics. The key challenge will be in convincing farmers, landowners, planners, politicians, pressure groups and local and visiting public, and even some conservationists to accept living alongside large predators once again.

It seems unlikely, therefore, that there Pleistocene Parks Donlan et al describe will ever to come to fruition. Instead many advocate the less revolutionary, but certainly more achieveable goal of refaunation by restoring extant native species to their historical geographical ranges (i.e just a few hundred years)8,11.

So whilst it's hard to envisage elephants roaming our relatively small island here in the U.K, perhaps we could find room for a few wild cats in the highlands?


  1. Monbiot, G. "My manifesto for rewilding the world" The Guardian May 27, 2013
  2. Bocherens, H. et al. Isotopic evidence for dietary ecology of cave lion (Panthera spelaea) in North-Western Europe: Prey choice, competition and implications for extinction, Quaternary International 245, 249-261 (2011)
  3. Gray, R. "Wild lynx to be brought back to British countryside" The Telegraph May 26, 2013
  4. Naeem, S. Ecology: Into the (re)wild. Nature 497: 436-437 (2013)
  5. Soulé, M. & Noss, R. Rewilding and Biodiversity: Complementary Goals for Continental Conservation. Wild Earth 8 (Fall) 19-28 (1998)
  6. Donlan, J. et al. Pleistocene Rewilding: An Optimistic Agenda for Twenty-First Century Conservation. The American Naturalist 168, 660-681 (2006)
  7. Flannery, T. The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and its Peoples, GROVE/ATLANTIC Incorporated, 2002.
  8. Rubenstein, D. R. et al. Pleistocene Park: Does re-wilding North America represent sound conservation for the 21st century? Biological Conservation 132, 232-238 (2006)
  9. Zimov S.A. Pleistocene Park: Return of the Mammoth's Ecosystem. Science 308, 796-798 (2005)
  10. Donlan, J. Re-wilding North America. Nature 436: 913-914 (2005)
  11. Oliveira-Santos, L. G. R. & Fernandez, F. A. S. Pleistocene Rewilding, Frankenstein Ecosystems, and an Alternative Conservation Agenda. Conservation Biology 24, 4-5 (2010)
  12. Caro, T. The Pleistocene re-wilding gambit. Trends in Ecological Evolution 22, 281-3 (2007)

Photo credits:

  1. Philip Workman
  2. (Core) savethewildup on Flickr
  3. (Carnivores) Author's own
  4. Heinrich Harder from Wikimedia Commons

June 18, 2013 | 12:39 AM
Posted By:  Sedeer el-Showk
I certainly agree that we need to rethink our psychological relationship with the world around us, which is why it's great that prominent people are raising debate and discussion about issues like this, as you & Khalil mentioned. These are important issues which are often plagued with misinformation, so it's also important to have realistic voices like yours to temper the discussion.

I guess a big part of the reason why the idea of these parks bugs me is because they seem to be strongly rooted in the myth of our dominion over nature. They seem to reinforce the idea that we are somehow masters of all we survey rather than being part of a complex, dynamic system. At the risk of sounding like a hippy myself, it's time we abandoned the myth of control and change to a more integrative perspective.
June 15, 2013 | 10:51 AM
Posted By:  Kate Whittington
I also think this links in with Khalil's comment in that, whatever you think of these kinds of plans, people like Donlan et al. and Monbiot are at least generating vital discussions about the kinds of landscapes we want to live in and the level of environmental stewardship that is deemed feasible and/or morally right.
June 15, 2013 | 10:50 AM
Posted By:  Kate Whittington
Not at all Sedeer, as far as large-scale Pleistocene Parks go, I'm pretty cynical myself! It was proposed that these parks would create jobs and provide tourism benefits to the surrounding communities...but then there's always the counterargument that it could direct funds aways from existing African and Asian eco-tourism... So, as I said in my post, it's not so much the science that's the main issue, but the myriad socio-economic considerations that, once you get down to the logistical details, become the biggest barriers to the implementation of rewilding.

I also completely agree with your comment that it feels very much like treating the symptom rather than the cause. These megafauna didn't go extinct by accident, and if we ever want them back we need to address some very complex and deep-seated issues. not only with regards to our impact on the environment, but also, without wanting to sound too hippy, our psychological relationship with it.
June 13, 2013 | 08:16 PM
Posted By:  Sedeer el-Showk
Thanks for the interesting post. I don't know much about re-wilding, but trying to restore Pleistocene ecosystems strikes me as a misguided, romantic/nostalgic gesture. It feels like treating the symptom (disappearance of megafauna) rather than the cause (overpopulation, unsustainable resource use & disruption of the climate).

I was also a bit concerned by the idea of ecological history parks in "economically depressed parts areas of the North American plains". I understand the motivation and I see that there could be potential benefits, but the 'economically depressed' part brings a class aspect into it that makes me wary. Will the people in these areas actually benefit from re-wilding or will they just be further marginalized to assuage the conscience of others who might economically secure but are often environmentally catastrophic?

Sorry if this comment comes off as cynical. I'm not actually that negative; I just like stirring up discussion. I really enjoyed the post! :)
June 13, 2013 | 01:03 PM
Posted By:  Kate Whittington
Thanks Khalil, that's a great post by Frank, I agree a lot about the dangers of falling into a mindset whereby we feel we are able to just bring species back, or restore whatever we've lost at a later date, as it removes the incentive to care for and to value what we have in the present.

As for Monbiot, I agree we need people who will bring these subjects to the foreground and try to rally support and action towards environmental causes, I just felt it was quite misleading... I also don't think his comments about the farming community do much to help garner support...Them being perhaps the biggest and most influential stakeholders in relation to this concept, he's done more to alienate them than persuade...
June 10, 2013 | 12:49 PM
Posted By:  Khalil A. Cassimally
Great piece, Kate. As a staunch supporter of Monbiot, I am completely behind his forceful attempt to bring the re-wilding topic to the foreground. But things must be taken with a pinch of salt. The seemingly blatant overzealousness of Monbiot's claim (both in the article you link to and, judging from the Nature review, his book) is most probably an attempt to spur people to act rather than a scientifically viable or achievable goal.

Also, just wanted to point out that re-wilding shares some of the same potential pitfalls as de-extinction too. Here's a great piece by Frank Swain about de-extinction:
Blogger Profiles
Recent Posts

« Prev Next »

Connect Send a message

Scitable by Nature Education Nature Education Home Learn More About Faculty Page Students Page Feedback