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Rewilding and the Elephant (Mammoth?) in the Room

"Rewilding" is one of the jobs on Bruce Anderson’s 2022 blog post entitled 15 Jobs You’ll Be Recruiting for in 2030 (along with “Organ Creator” and “Human-Machine Team Manager”). What’s rewilding? I looked it up. Kara Anderson, writing for Greenly, says it’s . .

“. . .anything that works to restore nature and return an ecosystem to the condition it was in before human interaction.”
Bird's eye view of land regenerated over time, 2000, 2006, and 2012
Instituto Terra's first forest regeneration project.

My favorite example of rewilding comes from the work in Brazil of Sebastião Salgado and his wife, Lélia Dluiz Wanick, who planted several million trees to regenerate the forest in the degraded land of his birthplace. Now the ecosystem thrives, capturing carbon, holding onto water. Wildlife has moved back. It’s an amazing effort and a truly inspiring story you can watch on the documentary, Salt of the Earth.

Rewilding projects aren’t limited to plantings though. They often reintroduce keystone wildlife species. Some great examples really successful translocation projects are the re-introduction of wolves in Yellowstone, beavers in the UK, blue wildebeests in the Serengeti, and bison in the American prairie. Successful projects like these regenerate the native forests and grasslands, increasing their capacity to capture carbon and help mitigate climate change.

But, here's the elephant in the room. If we’re going to “return an ecosystem to condition it was in before human interaction,” wouldn’t we have to go back to the Pleistocene when humans started hunting megafauna like mammoths?

A photos of Zimov burning a methane fire in a snowbank showoing how the permafrost is affected by climate change
Zimov burns a methane fire in winter

Scientists Sergei and Nikita Zimov, a father-and-son team, are working on it. They’ve trying to solve a huge climate change problem, permafrost melt. When that happens, the remains of plants and animals from hundreds of thousands of years start decomposing, creating “fetid pools of muddy methane-bubbling sludge.” And that methane is going to accelerate climate change.

At their Pleistocene Park in Siberia, the Zimov’s have brought in animals like goats, horses, camels, and bison to simulate the big grazers of the Pleistocene. Back then the land was covered in grasses that held lots of carbon in their long roots. The grazers trampled the snow which effectively kept the ground frozen. And those pale grasses reflected back more sunlight than the moss and lichens growing there now.

The Zimov’s 30+ years of work seem to be working. The overall temperature of permafrost in their park is colder by an average of 2.2 °C (4°F).

But the Zimov’s don’t want to stop there. They want mammoths. Elephants won’t do in the freezing temperatures of Siberia. Could we do that? Possibly. But at GREAT expense. Should we? Well . . .

I’d love to see mammoths roaming around Siberia, but isn’t there a better way to spend bazillions of dollars? George Monbiot thinks so. In his article Resurrection Men. Monbiot suggests an alternative. We should be rewilding Asian elephants (and hippos, etc) into the lands being vacated by farmers in Europe and America. They would “kickstart some key ecological processes.” It doesn’t sound so far-fetched if you watch his video about rewilding our world.

Monbiot says “The story rewilding tells us is that ecological change need not always proceed in one direction. It offers us the hope that our silent spring could be replaced by a raucous summer.”

Personally, I think we have plenty of work rewilding just pulling down fences and abandoned buildings, and reintroducing keystone species from the recent past. Let's put lots of people to work on amazing projects like those at Instituto Terra in Brazil, so rewilding is a hot job prospect for many, many years.

Photo Attributions:

Instituto Terra's Project:

Methane Fire in Siberia:

Grasslands at Pleistocene Park:

Enryū6473, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


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