Who Cares About Wild Nature?

The Practical Realities of a Rewilded World

As wildlife populations rebound with reforestation in rich countries, including Europe and the United States, a question is increasingly being raised — do people really care about wild nature? Or do they view it as more of a nuisance than a blessing?

The final panel of Breakthrough Dialogue 2015 explored ways to pragmatically “rewild” rich and poor countries alike — all while reducing human-animal conflicts.

Practical lessons in rewilding can be learned from Kruger National Park in South Africa, argued panelist Martin Lewis, a geographer at Stanford. Krueger is a 7,500 square-mile area filled with large populations of elephants, leopards, zebras, and other large fauna that are carefully managed by humans.

“Kruger National Park is a treasure trove of biodiversity,” said Lewis, “but it is far from wilderness, crisscrossed as it is with roads. If you don’t stay in your car, there’s a good chance you’ll be killed and eaten.”

Fences and other barriers are not only necessary for keeping wildlife from encroaching into neighboring sugarcane plantations, golf courses, and resorts, but also for keeping humans out of areas for land-demanding animals like wild dogs.

Kruger’s more commercial orientation toward conservation, plus its enforcement of what Lewis calls “biocentric” versus “anthropocentric” zones, is a good model for California. The reintroduction of the grizzly bear to the Sierra Nevadas is one rewilding scheme that has met opposition, but Lewis said that the oft-forgotten Diablo Range is a much more suitable habitat, provided there are good fences.

Such deep rewilding is possible in rich countries because population growth has stabilized as well as natural resource use, allowing lands to revert to wilderness. But what about in poor countries, where demand for food and other materials needs have not been met?

Shumeet Banerji described his work saving tigers in India with Project Tigris. While present-day research and media outlets have focused on Chinese poachers as the biggest threat to tigers, Banerji argued that habitat loss is still the greatest factor.

Despite a fairly strong system of protected areas in India, “the biggest issue that we have is extensive human habitat in and around them,” said Banerji. “There are about 40,000 families near tiger habitat. If we can help these people, there is hope for the tigers.”

Families near tiger habitat are given the option to relocate to new villages, where they get access to productive land, water, farming technologies, roads, education, and other tools for economic self-sufficiency. Voluntary relocation offers more uninterrupted space for the tigers, which need isolation and quiet.

“As long as relocation is strictly voluntary — and people are better off — then it works,” said Banerji. “People want development. They do not live some glorious life in the wilderness. Animals eat them and their crops.”

Thus, at both end of the spectrum, for rich and for poor countries, wildlife management entails a significant degree of human intervention. And, as veteran journalist Jim Sterba has documented in his book Nature Wars, people aren’t always prepared.

By the early 19th century in America, most wildlife populations had been radically reduced due to the country’s insatiable appetite for wild game, fur, feathers, fuel, lumber, and jewelry. Just a century later, however, the destruction slowly stopped and then reversed. Thanks to the conservation efforts, forests began to regrow and wildlife populations bounced back.

“This is truly wonderful news,” said Sterba. “Unless, perhaps, you’re one of 4,000 drivers who will hit a deer today. Or your child’s soccer field is carpeted with goose droppings, or coyotes are killing your pets…or beavers have flooded your driveway, or bears are looting your garbage cans.”

According to Sterba, the credo “leave nature alone” is irresponsible when animals are not only reclaiming backyards, but also doing real damage.

“The core of most wildlife fights is about lethal management,” he said. “Contraception always comes up because it holds out the promise of sparing animal lives, but it’s still neither practical nor affordable.”

What if rewilding leads people to conclude they really don’t want more nature, asked conservationist Trevor Stevenson.

“When wolves, elk, bears, cougars, and beavers come back, people who liked these animals in theory ‘out in the wild’ realized they really disliked having them in their neighborhoods,” said Stevenson, speaking from experience on a project called Wild Neighborhoods in Wyoming.

The extent of wildlife, as well as how it is managed, will require a cultural appreciation and connection to various kinds of natures, the panelists agreed.

“There’s been a lot of talk of urbanization, density, intensification,” noted McKie Campbell, former chief of staff to Senator Lisa Murkowski. “But the more you separate people from natural areas, the fewer approaches they have to understand the species as a whole or the larger ecosystem.”

“In 1850, two-thirds of us worked outdoors,” Sterba noted. “Today we spend 90 percent of our time indoors. We get our nature indirectly, from books, movies, and TV, and it’s usually more Disney than Darwin.”

“South Africa is vastly poorer than the United States, but yet they are seeing huge increases in places like Kruger, and that’s because they have such a strong desire to go out and look at the wildlife,” said Lewis. “Tourists come to see the big five – leopards and so forth – but the people from and around the park really want to see the penguin and the aardvark.”

Read Martin Lewis' Breakthrough Journal essay on pragmatic rewilding here.