Rewilding is a conservation approach that aims to restore ecosystems to their natural state by reintroducing and protecting native species. It involves creating larger and connected habitats, allowing wildlife to roam freely. Rewilding promotes biodiversity, enhances ecosystem services, and helps mitigate the impacts of human activities on the environment.
Welcome to today's Rethink What Matters podcast. The podcast dedicated to aligning the economy with the ecology, with everyone for improved business performance, stronger families, and a greener, cooler planet.
And today, I'm joined by Millie Kerr, author and conservation storyteller.
Millie is the author of Wilder, how rewilding is transforming conservation and changing the world. Welcome Millie.
Thanks Paul. It's really great to be here today.
I see that your book has had high praise from the new scientists and Jane Goodall, herself, who is well known for her work with chimpanzees.
Yes, their endorsements and praise are really humbling to me, especially to have someone like Jane Goodall stand behind this book and I think one of the things that seems to have resonated with people is the global nature of the book. So every chapter examines a rewilding project in a different part of the world and that seems to have changed the rewilding dialogue a little bit, I think.
If you could tell us a little bit about your journey.
So my journey is a winding one. I started my career as a corporate attorney, and then I transitioned to journalist and conservation storyteller about a decade ago. In terms of this book, I've been writing a lot about conservation and I've started to hear more about these really ambitious rewilding projects that were taking place all over the world. And even though some of them were not using the term rewilding, it was clear that they fit within the parameters. And I really wanted to write an optimistic book that shows that there are fantastic advances happening in conservation. And so that's how I landed on this topic.
That's great. So perhaps we can just take explore a little bit more about rewilding. And what actually is the scope of rewilding?
Rewilding today means a lot of different things to different people. Here in the UK it tends to be focused on restoring former agricultural land by taking different measures that will make the land healthier and therefore attract wildlife.
But in fact, when rewilding became a topic in the 1990s, the term was coined in the US, and it actually referred to what are called the three c's, which is carnivores, cores, and connectivity.
And so the original aim which still guides a lot of projects today is to create or maintain core areas like large national parks, then have corridors connecting a specific core area to another or to numerous other cores.
And then as needed to reintroduce carnivores because carnivores obviously sit at the top of the food chain. So they regulate ecosystems and there's this trickledown effect that can entirely revolutionise an ecosystem.
And this example that a lot of people point to was the reintroduction of grey wolves to Yellowstone National Park in the US in 1995 because after the wolves were brought back, there were changes in terms of predator-prey dynamics.
The wolves were killing more prey and the prey animals weren't overgrazing and so on and so forth. But today, rewilding encompasses projects of many different scales, not all of which involve the reintroduction of carnivores. However, many do focus on bringing back what are called Keystone species which is basically any species that exerts more influence over an ecosystem than others. It includes animals like elephants and sea otters, and beavers for instance.
So this is this is really spot on, I think, for Awardaroo. You know, Awardaroo is all about net gain. And I think rewilding is very similar to that. You know, net gain seems that net zero is not really enough to move us forward. And I think rewilding is sort of the positive side of conservation. Conservation is about, you know, stopping decline, and rewilding is about building and regenerating for the future and restoring and repairing and building anew.
I agree. That's a really fantastic parallel, and I do feel that we have to aim as high as we can in that, you know, context of conservation, rewilding. We shouldn't just be focused on a particular ecosystem or one or two species. Even though those projects are laudable, we should really be trying to revitalise and restore entire ecosystems and everything that comes with it and everything that regulates it.
Right. Brilliant. So rewilding is about species, it's about habitats, and it's about ecosystems.
That's right. And, you know, there are some projects that are more focused on species reintroductions, for instance, because once that happens like with the grey wolves, there will be this trickledown effect. And, you know, wolves were introduced to Yellow-- reintroduced rather, to Yellowstone National Heart, which is already a very large wilderness area that's protected, whereas there are other projects where creating or expanding a protected area is half the battle. And, of course, these projects are at all different stages as well.
That was something, when writing the book, I had to think about, you know, at what point is this a rewilding project? And at what point is it successful? Is rewilding actually happening? Those are some of the really interesting questions I think.
I'd like to come onto that. How, you know, what's the measure of success with rewilding?
So it does depend on what the goals and kind of the bounds of the project are, but there's one or two in my book that really do hinge on the population growth of a particular species. So in one chapter I wrote about the reintroduction of Scimitar Horned Oryx to Chad.
And the goal is to see five hundred, you know, breeding and viable adults or in the sort of in the near term just to have five hundred adults living in the wild. But (they) have something that involves more what's called trophic complexity, which is kind of like that interaction between creditors, prey, vegetation, etcetera. You might then have different metrics.
Or if your original goal is to protect x number of hectares of habitat, you might find that you have success when that's in place. And it is worth pointing out that in the UK, rewilding tends to fall under what's called passive rewilding.
And so in a lot of these projects, the goal is to take land, oftentimes former agricultural land, and let it run wild again. And so even though people might kick off the process by bringing down fences or removing invasive species, or not allowing livestock to go in a particular area, the hope is that species that might have either gone missing locally or the numbers have plummeted, that they'll just kind of come back at their own accord.
But I think in general, one of the things that rewilding will still have to work out over time is how these measures of success work and at what point is a project seen as being self-sustaining because even though rewilding does require human intervention at the outset even if it is in a more passive sense, there is this notion that at some point people need to step away and that the project needs to be successful and self-sustaining.
Yeah. Of course.
Let nature take its course, exactly.
It sounds that there may be a close correlation with, you know, regenerative agriculture here. I suppose the regenerative agriculture is more on the farming side of things, and this is more on the another open spaces.
I think there is a link. There's even some rewilding projects that focus on sort of more sustainable or regenerative agriculture and I wrote about one here in the UK where there's a farm owned by a family and they're simply trying to take small measures like increasing the number of hedgerows which can be important for birds to nest in or allowing certain fields to go fallow or creating wildflower meadows.
So I think the idea, as you know, is that all of these things need to work in concert and there's many different goals, but they all influence one another and, you know, the same as to climate change, for instance, like rewilding is seen as a tool for mitigating climate change. But equally, when you set out on a project, you have to consider that climate change might have already impacted a certain ecosystem in a way that will then alter the project itself.
I did want to ask you that actually, to what extent is climate change driving these rewilding projects. Maybe it's not that obvious always, but what does tend to drive these rewilding projects Is it human activity and climate change?
Those are certainly factors and habitat loss, which is a big one, which of course is often due to population growth and things like agriculture. But some of the projects I featured have a much more specific cause, which in several cases with civil war or civil conflict and of pieces. It was just the sort of growth of a type of agriculture such as cattle ranching that just completely altered the ecosystem.
So I think, you know, there's a wide variety of causes and equally there's a wide variety of solutions and that is why rewilding does have so many different shapes and sizes and applications.
So, is it necessary sometimes then to get the local communities involved too?
Absolutely and I believe in general that conservation must involve local communities especially because local communities are often the best stewards anyway because they have everything to lose or to gain from the state of nature in their areas.
And at the same time, it only seems fair that local communities will ultimately have the ability to steward their land, but there are of course challenges as well. So for instance, it's very easy for us to sit here and think about the importance of having elephants or maintaining lion populations, but if you're actually living in the midst of these species, you have to contend with the reality that they might trample your crops or big cats might kill your livestock. And so, there are a lot of interesting mechanisms for addressing that. But back to your original question, I think local communities absolutely must play an essential part and that seems to be something that's recognised more widely these days in conservation.
You know, I don't want to have to ask, really, but it's a bit of a reality, isn't it? Everything still, you know, is driven by economics and money. So to what extent do these rewilding projects having to deliver some kind of an economic output?
You know, I think that there always needs to be an incentive whether it's economic or otherwise. But to the point I made earlier, if you have people, let's say living alongside dangerous animals or destructive animals, there needs to be, first of all, a way to compensate them for loss and that's often set up through these funds where for instance if a lion kills your sheep, you can then get funding to cover the loss to your farming or your agriculture. But equally, communities and other, you know, individuals and groups in these areas do need to have other economic incentives. And oftentimes, ecotourism is the answer.
But as we saw with the pandemic, you become quite vulnerable when the sole source of your income is related to ecotourism. However, you will often find that people who care about the environment are also likely to travel to wilderness areas. And so there's also that educational opportunity that when you have people there you can tell them about the conservation and rewilding work, and they may then even donate money. But often there are, you know, percentages of your stay at a safari lodge for instance might go towards rewilding or conservation in the area. So I think all of those incentives are really important.
Okay. All right. And I'm just wondering, do all—are all rewilding projects successful or do some of them not managed to, just to not manage to achieve their goals?
Unfortunately, not all rewilding projects are successful. I think especially really ambitious ones or ones that are taking place in vulnerable areas where there's civil strife or conflict. And the reality too is that a lot of these projects are young enough that we don't really know yet if they've been successful or they may be successful as of now (but) what's (going to) happen fifty years from now or three hundred years from now.
I think it's important to measure the gains in the short term, but especially in the longer term. And that way, rewilders can also learn from their mistakes and develop guiding principles and metrics for success.
You know, none of that is my expertise, but that's kind of the gold standard in conservation and probably any type of science where you do need to have ways to measure success and then adapt and find ways to move forward more efficiently.
With the way the world is changing and with climate warming, you know, and increased awareness of the issues that we're all facing, are you aware that our rewilding projects becoming more common. I mean, are more rewilding projects being undertaken now? Is there more investment going into rewilding?
I think there's absolutely an increasing amount of interest going into rewilding and investment. You see these large organisations now like Rewilding Europe You have countries like Scotland. Scotland wants to become the first rewilding nation.
And I think in general, the fact people are starting to know the term, it's a great connection for them into conservation. Then one of the strengths the term has is that it does mean many things to different people, so it's quite flexible in a way.
Now scientists might say, “Well, if it means so many things, does it really mean anything?”
But I tend to be of the opinion that having variability and having a diverse set of approaches is a positive thing because my core interest is trying to find ways to get the general public interested in conservation. And so, the more people read about rewilding or learn about it, the more that term becomes fixed and it's something that they then might, again, like, either they might want to participate in or they might want to donate money towards it or any number of things, but you start to have that public engagement as well.
You know, it fits so well with net zero and I saw most of swear word, isn't it offsetting if you like? But do you know, to what extent is rewilding related to offsetting? Do you know other rewilding projects specifically to sell if you like for offsetting purposes?
That is a really great question and I don't know the answer. I suspect that there are offsets that are very much related to rewilding and that incorporate rewilding projects but I'm not yet aware of, for instance, rewilding offsets. But it wouldn't surprise me if that's in the making as we speak.
I think we've got a market there. We need to go set up a business very fast.
So did you know if it is it ever is it ever difficult to choose the re a rewiring project? I guess, there's always somebody whose passion is driving it.
I think oftentimes you do see, especially these really ambitious projects are driven by an individual or an organisation that's already passionate about rewilding or is passionate about a specific project. So for instance, one of the most ambitious projects I wrote about in Wilder which is the first chapter is the restoration of a park in Mozambique called Gorongosa.
And even though the work is being undertaken by scientists from around the world and local Mozambicans and the Mozambican parks authority, pretty much the entire project is being funded by a single individual who is an American entrepreneur turned philanthropist. And he didn't set out to fund a rewilding project per se. And I think when he got started, I'm not sure the term was mainstream at that point. In fact, I think it probably wasn't.
But he wanted to do something that was really ambitious, and it's just critical in a country like Mozambique that doesn't have a lot of, sort of, national park management of the kind that you might see in other African countries or elsewhere to get a project like that off the ground. But elsewhere, you know, the needs might be driven by local people or national parks trying to decide where the next rewilding project should be, sometimes it is species driven. And I think we have to acknowledge that sometimes that comes down to what are known as parasmatic mega fauna. So you have animals like elephants and lions that get the public excited. And if they can anchor a project, they're also Keystone species, that's fantastic. And you might have someone who wants to fund a project focused on elephants because he or she is passionate about elephants. I think it happens in all sorts of ways. And it really depends on where the financing is coming from.
Keystone species is a new term to me. You know, I'm just wondering, is it a new term?
I don't know how long it's been around, but it's not as new as rewilding, for instance. And I think what's new in the rewilding landscape is the acknowledgement that rewilding projects are not just about reintroducing and carnivores. They're also about reintroducing other types of Keystone species, not all of which sit high on the food chain, but you've got animals like beavers and sea otters that are what are called ecosystem engineers and they can have incredible changes or they can-- sorry, they can prompt incredible changes to an ecosystem and they're really important too. So there are rewilding projects that sort of hinge on non-carnivore Keystone species.
I'd love to know more about the projects in your book, actually. Could you maybe tell us about two or three of them, you'd really like to relate to everybody?
Sure. So I intentionally wrote several chapters that are similar and involve restoring landscapes and wildlife in areas that were impacted by recent events like civil wars. So one chapter which I have mentioned involves the restoration of Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique which unfortunately was at the centre of the Mozambican in civil war.
And then in Rwanda, the genocide and the after effects of the genocide, namely a lot of Rwandans returning to their home country after the war, with their livestock - that impacted the country's largest national park which is called the Akagera.
But then I also chose projects that were really, really different. So for instance, one examines removing invasive species in New Zealand. So you may know that a lot of island ecosystems are really vulnerable to the introduction of invasive plants and animals because islands often have a lot of what are called endemic species. So things that are only found there and not found anywhere else. And New Zealand is kind of the height of this because it's been on its own as a land mass for a very, very long time.
And when it split off of the supercontinent called Gondwana, mammals have not even evolved yet. So the only native mammal in New Zealand is a bat or maybe several bat species that actually flew over from Australia, you know, a long, long time ago. And so today, it's imperative that animals like stoats and cats and rats are removed because they are just wreaking havoc on the native wildlife, especially bird and reptiles that live on the ground and never had these land-based predators to contend with.
That's interesting. So that's sort of almost turning rewilding around, isn't it? It's sort of removing something which is the pest as opposed to reintroducing something which everyone sort of desires.
Exactly. And it is interesting because I know in the literature, there was some debate about, you know, is island rewilding really rewilding? But I think it absolutely is because the goals are the same. It's just that on islands, as you point out, it's often about removing something.
And so I wanted to make sure I covered that subject. I wanted to make sure I had an urban project, so I ended up writing about my hometown of San Antonio, Texas, which has the San Antonio River flowing through it. And like many waterways, the river was manipulated over time to try to reduce flooding in San Antonio. But unfortunately, that had really negative consequences for wildlife because the river became this kind of tame thing that wasn't a living, breathing, wild system anymore. And so a lot of interesting changes needed to happen, and ultimately it benefits people more anyway. So a lot of flood mitigation was kind of short sighted and didn't really take other factors into account.
Okay, well, that's a completely different type of project, I think, for rewilding, isn't it? You know, always thinking it's going to be about reintroducing species and animals, but it can also then be about the way that rivers are running and the way that they managed.
Exactly. You definitely see rewilding applied to so many different systems and projects, and there have been some reintroductions there, but a lot of the other urban rewilding projects have to do with greenways and taking places like old railroad tracks and trying to make them, you know, wild, vibrant ecosystems again. Because, obviously, in urban contexts, you're less likely to see these, you know, what we're called the large core areas like big parks. Although interestingly in London, you do have a number of large parks that are close enough together that you imagine animals moving between them. We certainly see that with foxes here.
Yeah, you know I know that go to some of the London parks, you'll find, I think, it's budgerigars there, you know, which budgerigars, you don't normally get budgerigars in England. But there's a whole load of budgerigars there, hanging out.
And the other one is squirrels. You know, you know, we're overrun with grey squirrels here. And I think it's, you know, our red squirrels (have) dissipated.
Yeah. It's a shame really that these invasive species have ended up here. You know, I always say it's not their fault, but at the same time, in a lot of cases, they are displacing native species, and that's definitely been true of the, you know, North American grey squirrel versus the native red squirrel here. And then the birds you often see in High Park, which I think are called - they have different names, but I think they're called Rosenet parakeets.
You see them in a lot of cities in Europe as well and they're obviously successful for a reason which is they're probably taking over nest holes, for instance, from other species. They're consuming, you know, seeds or vegetation that other species depend on. And so there are certainly efforts like in New Zealand to get rid of these invasive species, but they can also be very controversial.
I was gonna ask, there must be quite a discussion within the rewilding community then. This has been going on probably forever. You know, species travelling from one place to the next and things changing. Does that ever present challenges to rewilders, if you like, to justify what they want to do?
It definitely does and where it really comes into play is around what are called baselines, which is you know, what it sounds like. So you're trying to establish: what are we trying to return this state to? Are we trying to return it to preindustrial revolution? Are we trying to return it to the pleistocene era? You know, you have people who want to resurrect the woolly mammoth and are working every day to try to make that happen.
And a lot of rewilders, I would say, are focused on sort of pre-industrial revolution or times before what's now called the sixth grade extinction.
And the holocene. So this is like the one time we see all of these extinctions happening because of human behaviour. But I personally think more thoughts should be given to baselines, and I'm not convinced that any one baseline is right or wrong. But, of course, this is where you do have to start to consider things like climate change and the natural cycles of things. So if we bring some of these species back that went missing thousands of years ago, will they even be able to survive in today's environments?
And everything is so interconnected, isn't it? You know, you push on one bit and something else pops out somewhere else you probably hadn’t anticipated. So yeah.
So are there cons-- are there rewilding projects, you know, in every country or do you find that the rewilding projects, you know, occur mostly in hot countries or in in Africa or--?
That's a really great question. I think There's certainly a lot of rewilding that isn't called rewilding and is a form of conservation that would be classified as rewilding. I mean, even a number of the projects I wrote about, the individuals I interviewed weren't familiar with the term or the concept. But I think what you're seeing a lot today is there's a lot of interest coming out of the UK and Europe where there are these large NGOs that are passionate about rewilding locally and regionally.
Whereas, historically, a lot of conservation was rooted originally in kind of colonial era hunting in places like Africa or India. And then, those hunters started to see that their quarry was diminishing. And so that led to them becoming interested in conservation, initially in a self-centred, self-focused way and then later in a more benevolent, charitable way. But conservation I think is happening all over the place. It's really just about what kind of resources are available.
And as you can imagine, there are parts of the world that get overlooked and where there might not be as much knowledge in country or resources in country, and then you're dependant on some foreign body. And, you know, that can be a good thing, but there's really interesting training programmes and educational programmes.
So for instance, back to Mozambique. One of the things that Gorongosa National Park has done is they've created a Wildlife Conservation Master's Programme that takes place inside the park, and it only admits Mozambican students.
And so it's like, you know, these people are going to come in and they're going to learn all about the need for conservation in their home country, they're going to be trained there. And the idea is that, hopefully, they will stick around and they will be the next generation of conservation leaders in Mozambique.
So when did rewilding sort of become a thing, if you like? When did conservation become rewilding or is it rewilding always been there?
The term rewilding dates back to the 1990s when there seemed to be a recognition (that) traditional conservation wasn't going far enough and that there needed to be these really large and ambitious projects. And so they started you know, springing up in the nineties and in the years that followed.
But there was a book that came out in the UK in 2013 called Farrell by George Mambia who writes for the Guardian.And that was a book that introduced a lot of readers in this country to the concept. I would say in my experience, I live in the UK but I'm from the US and fewer people in the US seem to know the term. But then, when you talk about something like Yellowstone National Park and the Grey Wolves, they're familiar with the project. So it's a matter of helping people see that rewilding is a form of conservation, but it's also, at least in my opinion, more ambitious than conservation.
Okay. And is rewilding a subject in its own right in universities and colleges for people to study in?
It's starting to become that, I think. So I've not heard yet of a particular degree in rewilding, for example. But, I can imagine that a lot of these undergraduate and graduate degree is in conservation biology or ecology might now have a course or set of courses on rewilding. And I just think the movement will continue to grow and grow, and there will continue to be probably more professionals who want to get into the conservation space to become rewilders. I think we're probably seeing that as we speak in a kind of informal way.
Yeah. I can imagine, this is the distinction between rewilding being about growth, if you like versus, as we were saying, conservation - about making sure there's (no) further decline is, I think, an important distinction today, more than ever, because more and more people are recognising that we need to be regenerative you know, it's less about being sustainable, it's more about being regenerative. So hopefully, rewilding, it does become a thing, all of itself. And if it does, then, yeah, that definitely is going to be helping us to become a net gain.
Absolutely. And I think it is exciting to see this movement really taking off or suddenly, you know, you talk to one of your friends and they're I know what rewilding is. I just read such and such book about it. And when I was writing Wilder, I kept interviewing people who would say to me, just so you know, I was interviewed by two other authors who were working on a book.
And it just sort of blew up in recent years, I think, because this organisation called Rewilding Britain has taken off in the wake of Rewilding Europe, and people now know that beavers have started to come back here in the UK.
And so the movement just continues to snowball, which is very, very exciting because often with topics like science, it's hard to get the general public excited about whatever you're working on.
And I think we're realising that everything's just a little bit too manicured and organised and pristine. So I believe also the Chelsea flower show now that Wild Meadows or wild plants, wild flowers are now a thing, whereas before I think it was something that was a bit you know, you looked out upon.
Yeah. It's interesting. I mean, people typically people who do a lot of gardening, they want the space to be very manicured to look a specific way. They're often using foreign plants and flowers that are really beautiful, but now that there's this greater realisation, especially that pollinators are in such decline and that our food sources and supplies depend on the success of pollinators.
More and more people are willing to have wild spaces and interestingly right in Hyde Park in Kensington Gardens, just next door to Kensington Palace, in the last two years, a manicured grassy area has been converted into a wildflower meadow. I personally find it really beautiful. And I think a lot of people are recognising that we live in a world that's becoming less wild and that we, as people, are becoming less wild, we're losing our wildness. So there's also this movement towards personal rewilding, which is certainly something I've experienced having transitioned from law to writing about the environment and conservation and I think more people are hungry for these changes.
So are there any sort of closing thoughts, Millie, do you think that people should perhaps take away from this podcast.
I would say the final point back to sort of self-education and education is just I would encourage people to learn about conservation rewilding, to learn about the breadth of rewilding, and of course I'm biased. But I think that Wilder provides a great introduction to the many possibilities of rewilding, but it's one of these situations where we have to watch this space We have to see how these projects evolve. What do they look like in a few years’ time? What do they look like in a decade?
And so there's just so much to learn, so much to watch, and I personally can't wait to see how these projects evolve. Of course, I hope they're all successful. But realistically they may not all be and we have to learn from our failures too.
Millie, thanks very much for your time on this podcast. It's been really great to have you on this podcast and the time that you shared with us and the opportunity to learn about, you know, your projects in your book.
Thank you, Paul, for having me. I think we've had a really dynamic conversation and I appreciate you having me on as a guest.