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The call of rewilding: Digital forum highlights biodiversity engine

Organic, low-cost way to bring back forests and ecosystems
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After a 130-year absence, green-winged macaws have now returned to northeastern Argentina. Also joining them in Iberá National Park are jaguars, giant river otters, and other animals once thought to be long gone from the region. The species are at the forefront of global efforts to restore degraded ecosystems through a new technique known as rewilding — the topic of a wide-ranging online forum, part of the recent Global Landscapes Forum’s Biodiversity Digital Conference: One World–One Health.

Moderated by Guido Beauchez, executive director of the True Nature Foundation, which hosted the 90-minute talk, the forum explored best practices for rewilding — a  comprehensive effort to restore wilderness areas through sustainable conservation. Wildlife is at the core of this, with apex predators and keystone species reintroduced into former habitats to boost biodiversity and ecosystems

“By establishing the species that are missing and bringing them back we can return a territory to its fully functioning ecological level,” said speaker Kristine Tompkins, cofounder and president of Tompkins Conservation, addressing an online audience of about 500.

More broadly, rewilding initiatives offset global warming, help deforested and denuded landscapes recover, support endangered biodiversity, foster ecosystem resilience, and boost indigenous and rural communities.

Panelist Luis Martínez-Zaporta, country program manager for the True Nature Foundation in Spain, in particular highlighted the importance of rewilding in supporting ecological restoration through natural processes.

“It’s all about restoring self-regulating land communities,” he said. “For me, that’s the magic word – self-regulating. If human beings need to regulate [natural processes] that’s not nature, because nature must be self-sufficient.”

For this self-regulating process to occur, both Tompkins and Rebecca Wrigley, co-founder of Rewilding Britain, pointed to the importance of careful planning and dedicated support for rural communities involved in rewilding projects. “This has to be hand-in-hand with supporting people’s livelihoods,” Wrigley said. “Rewilding can be an economic driver for local and rural communities but there has to be engagement.”

Added Tompkins: “At the national level, have to have laws and regulations that support this kind of work, have to have them committed to this kind of work long-term and on the ground, and have a shared sense of global and national partners and then bring that to the local level.”

Iberá National Park, developed by the Conservation Land Trust, an organization established by Tompkins, provides an example of this model. The park formed gradually, with the Conservation Land Trust first acquiring cattle ranches in 1999 and then adding more territory over time. In 2018, the non-governmental organization donated the lands to the Argentinian government to form the park.

Located in the Chaco region, Iberá Park comprises wetlands, savannas, forests, grasslands, and other habit across roughly  1,834 sq km. It neighbors the 5,530 sq km Iberá Provincial Park and combined these large swaths of protected land provide animals with room to roam and space for birds to take flight while also bolstering long-term ecosystem stability. This wildlife has also provided a nature-based economic return through eco-tourism and related activities.

“Rewilding starts its role at the top, through acquiring and establishing large territories where rewilding is possible and then putting those territories into protected status long-term,” Tompkins said.

Rewilding Britain has also advocated for scaling-up rewilding across the United Kingdom, which ranks 189th out of 218 countries for its lack of  intact biodiversity. In response, Rewilding Britain is advocating for connecting 30 percent of the country’s land and marine areas by 2030.

With rewilding now entering its third decade as a conservation approach, such objectives align with broader global initiatives. The U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, for example, aims to restore 350 million hectares of degraded land by 2030, as part of the Bonn Challenge, which could also remove up to 26 million gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere. At the same time, the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) reports that 10 million ha of forests worldwide continue to be lost annually.

Rewilding is seen an organic, low-cost way to bring back these forests and ecosystems and help fight climate change. But continued government, institutional, and financial support will be critical.

“There is a need for coordinating local-level actions with government involvement and integrated financial and regulatory support,” speaker Stefanie Lindenberg, coordinator of the Natural Capital Finance Facility at the European Investment Bank in Belgium said.

Giles Davies, founder of Conservation Capital, added that a mix of public and private collaboration for rewilding projects is key. “It is very difficult to raise financing for small individual projects, you need to aggregate projects so you can target large amounts of financing from single sources,” he said.

At present, these efforts face stiff head winds given the global pandemic and its impact on the world economy, national and institutional budgets, and loss of jobs and income at the local level including in nature-based tourism.

But long-term, speakers stressed the potential of rewilding both for landscapes and biodiversity and as a natural, climate-friendly economic alternative for rural and Indigenous communities.

“You need to raise awareness about how that can happen,” Martinez-Zaporta said. “Be sure people know about rewilding and related projects, bring good results, and create momentum.”

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