A wilder future

Caroline Fraser has travelled the world to learn about rewilding – an ambitious approach to conservation explored in her new book. Here, she tells Jared Green why species protection means thinking big.

Jared Green: In your book, Rewilding the World: Dispatches from the Conservation Revolution, you said that “rewilding”, which involves applying conservation and ecological restoration work on a “scale previously unimagined” is now the primary method for designing, protecting and restoring protected areas. You mentioned the important role of cores, carnivores and corridors in this work. Why these?

Caroline Fraser: It was actually a biologist who came up with this definition. Michael Soulé was trying to think of ways to make these concepts friendly to a general audience. He was inventive in latching onto terms like “rewilding”. With this three-part formula for rewilding – cores, corridors and carnivores – he was trying to create a catchy phrase that people would remember, but it’s based on science.

In the last 25 to 30 years, biologists have figured out that a lot of the parks that we have created since the nineteenth century are just not big enough to protect the wildlife within them. For a lot of reasons, we need to start enlarging those protected areas – that is basically the definition of “cores”. We need big, core areas – big protected areas – and we need corridors to try and connect those areas.

If you look at a map of North America, and the only things on that map are the protected areas, parks like Yellowstone, you can see how very small they are in relation to the land mass and the wider landscape. You can also see how far apart they are from each other. Small “islands” of land and their isolation from each other are bad for biodiversity and sustaining species over time.

The third element is the carnivores, and they’ve added another category to that which they call “keystone species”, which include animals like beavers, which are very important in the ecosystem. Over the last 20 to 30 years, scientists have learned that if you take those out of the ecosystem, the whole system can start collapsing and some bizarre things will happen.

Their goal is to try and revivify our protected areas by making them bigger, connecting those protected areas, and teaching people how to live with carnivores and keystone species in a way that is more sustainable.

JG: Protected areas have grown from 3% of the world’s surface in the 1960s to over 12% today. This seems like a huge achievement, but you say many are just paper parks. How can you tell a successful park from a paper one?

CF: I’ve been to a number of parks in Africa and in Asia and one good way to tell a paper park is when you drive up to it and there’s nobody there. There’s nobody there working for the park, there’s nobody there to collect a fee to enter the park, there’s nobody there guarding it.

You can also tell from looking at the resources that are allocated to the park. Many developing countries don’t have money to spend on their parks, so many have been virtually emptied of wildlife. Such countries may have a system of parks, but they have no way of protecting them. This is particularly true of marine protected areas, and I saw the other day that the Philippines now have some 400 marine protected areas, but only 10% of those are achieving the goals they have set for conservation.

A lot of these parks have no real management structure. They don’t have people who are working to figure out what are the best ways to handle the wildlife, to protect the wildlife. We’ve done a lot of good over the past 40 years in setting aside land on paper, but now we have to figure out how to protect those protected areas.

JG: You said the first major rewilding project was the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (Y2Y), which aims to create a single wildlife corridor that connects isolated parks, national forests and large roadless areas, creating space for wolves, bears and other species. Why was this project so revolutionary?

CF: The major success Y2Y has had involves wildlife bridges and underpasses, which were not an original idea. They’ve been used in other places in the world for decades. But what was revolutionary about Y2Y is that they brought that to North America, particularly to Canada and the US in a way that was looking at the entire landscape for the first time – and that was revolutionary.

Before, everybody had just been focused on their own little patch – their own little park or protected area, or their own community. But in this project, people stepped back and took a very large view of the entire Rocky Mountain corridor, beginning way up in Canada and coming all the way down through the United States. They began looking at important questions: what do we need to do to keep these areas open for wildlife to migrate and disperse? That was revolutionary for conservationists, to think on that scale, on a landscape scale. That has been hugely influential in North America in terms of conservation planning.

JG: Transnational and peace parks – which are set up as a buffer between states in conflict – have grown over the years, reaching almost 200 in 2005. What are the opportunities and challenges in conserving and even rewilding when working across or in between borders?

CF: A lot of conservation right now is being handled or implemented by groups like Y2Y, which are non-governmental organisations. This is fine, but the problem with it is that there just isn’t enough funding, and the funding is coming from private parties and not from the government. I think that we need to start shifting our priorities to have governments being involved in the planning, implementing and funding of these projects. If you don’t, the money is spread too thin on the ground, and there also isn’t coordinated planning at the level that there needs to be.

This is a huge issue with transnational and peace parks, because these are being planned at the government level, and yet again, we don’t have enough funding to make these things happen in a lot of cases. Some of the really big projects in southern Africa, for instance, are just getting off the ground, but developing countries are growing very impatient with the lack of funding from countries in the developed world. Peace parks and trans-boundary parks are going to be hugely useful in terms of planning for things like watersheds and fresh-water protection and production, because this affects almost every country on most continents. Rivers cross borders. Wetlands cross borders. Trans-boundary parks offer an opportunity for countries to work together to preserve their water resources.

JG: You argue that big, bureaucratic, top-down conservation projects often fail because they don’t empower local communities. What approaches work for getting communities to take a lead in rewilding efforts? 

CF: In the early 1990s, a lot of the projects that were rapidly being put into place by the World Bank and the United Nations and some conservation organisations were often crudely designed, and they didn’t involve local people in a meaningful way. Sometimes they just handed out large sums of money to people who weren’t set up to deal with that. So money was distributed in an inequitable way that caused problems in the community. Now, I think they’re getting the hang of figuring out how to design projects in such a way that the local people can take charge of them. That’s a big factor in the success or failure of these projects.

A lot of this involves what in UN-speak is called “capacity building”. You have to have people in the community who are trained and educated in how to design and run these projects.

One case that is phenomenally interesting and successful is Namibia, where they wrote conservation into the constitution – one of the only examples of that in the world. Namibia has very successfully developed conservancy programmes in which the villages or the communities themselves are running the programmes and benefiting from them. This means people are completely invested in the projects. They are able to benefit from the wildlife by selling hunting licenses or by building and running ecotourism lodges. The conservancies that offer significant ownership of the project to communities seem to work the best.

JG: In your book, you ask important questions about what it means to restore a landscape or an ecosystem and, also, once something is restored, how you keep it that way.

CF: The question of how you figure out what you’re working toward is a tremendously knotty one.

Clearly, you don’t want to set a goal that is far too ambitious. I talk a little bit about some biologists who are interested in the Pleistocene rewilding idea in North America. They’re discussing the notion of replacing species that were lost ten thousand years ago, when people first came over the land bridge from Siberia and wiped out a lot of the native species here, like the mammoth. There are very exotic plans to bring in elephants, cheetahs or lions from Africa to replace the species that were wiped out, and restore the American prairie ecosystem. I think many people are pretty uncomfortable, if not downright enraged by those kinds of ideas.

Restorationists are much more practical than that. It’s really key to think about how a restoration project fits into a larger ecosystem and how many resources will be available to work with over time. If you don’t think about those things, then you can find yourself, as they did in Washington State with the restoration of Lake Washington, moving some of those problems down the line and adding to other environmental problems. You really have to think big and long-term when you’re doing these projects.


Jared Green is web content and strategy manager at the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA).

This interview was first published on the ASLA website. It is reproduced here with permission.

Homepage image by Peter Batty