Rewilding – what, why and how?

I first learned about rewilding in depth at university, where we explored it as a means of conservation, in contrast to ex-situ conservation programmes, such as zoos. When we think about conservation, often we think about large mammals – tigers, elephants or pandas, perhaps – and not entire ecosystems, from fungi to ancient trees and everything in between. With 2021 – 2030 labelled the ‘decade of ecosystem restoration, now seems like as good a time as ever to talk about how rewilding could fit into our sustainability goals and increase biodiversity.

Rewilding means returning a non-wild area back to the wild. The term originated in North America around 25 years ago during projects to help with the reintroduction of large mammals, such as wolves to Yellowstone (I would thoroughly recommend giving this short YouTube clip a watch!). Due to the relative recency of the field, scientific studies are relatively limited, and projects are instead often privately funded, limiting research into efficacy. Anecdotally, however, the changes rewilding induce can be vastly beneficial.

In Europe and North America (rewilding’s biggest proponents), rewilding often takes different forms, with the latter focusing on wildlife corridors for large mammals, and the former decentralising large mammals, focussing instead on habitats, not individual species. Either way, rewilding is essentially recreating habitats more similar to those that existed before human intervention, to the benefit of the natural ecosystem.

The impact of rewilding on the Knepp Estate

Why rewilding?

  • Helps nature recover

With 41% of UK species in decline and 15% threatened with extinction, it is evident that nature needs all the help it can get. Habitat loss and degradation have meant that the ecosystems in which many animals live are changing at a rate that they can’t adapt to. While woodland cover had actually increased, more unique habitats such as wetlands are vital for so many of the UK’s native species. Rewilding is not the only option for improving species outcomes, but it had the potential to significantly help, when done in the right way. More complex and robust ecosystems will be better able to withstand future environmental pressures.

  • Reintroduce missing species

Of 8,431 species assessed in the UK, 15% were classified as threatened with extinction from Great Britain, and 2% are already extinct. Rewilding habitats has helped with many conservation cases, both here in the UK and globally. Here is a great list of some of those success stories. Reintroduction of species cannot happen without significant amount of their native habitat being available, so rewilding could play a major part in global conservation efforts.

Wolves have been returning to mainland Europe for many years now thanks to information campaigns and conservation projects, after being persecuted for millennia.
  • Revitalise communities and bring economic benefits

While an entirely anthropocentric view, ignoring the economic benefits of rewilding would be foolish, as often this is the key way of getting these projects funded and facilitated. In the UK National Parks and nature are seen as a national treasure, but even abroad, many governments are starting to see the economic benefits of protecting, rather than exploiting nature. E.g. North American countries favoring wilderness showed faster growth in their employment and income level than counties in which the economy is mainly based on resource extraction.

“From an analysis of turnover, employment and county-level productivity data, it is estimated that England’s National Parks generate £4.1 to 6.3 billion of Gross Value Added (GVA) in 2012″.

National Park England Report
  • Ecosystem services and other environmental risk management

Ecosystem services‘ are the benefits humans gain from nature, including climate regulation, flood management, maintenance of nutrient cycles and, of course, improvement of quality of life. For example, trees lock water into the soil, preventing flooding after lots of rain. There are plenty of examples of how disrupting nature had led to far worse outcomes for humans too – this is just one example. Forest growth also promotes carbon sequestration (absorption of CO2 from the atmosphere), improving air quality. Natural regeneration allows soil recovery and nutrient availability and improved water quality, as forests regulate hydrological cycles too. Essentially, without nature and the services it provides as a byproduct of its existence, we’d really struggle.

  • Keep us healthy

I’ve spoken a lot about the mental health benefits of spending time in nature, and when you combine that with the benefits of exercise, walking, running or cycling through a rewilded forest is so good for you! Mind charity also released a report in 2018 on the benefits of nature for mental health. Nature is good for your physical health too, and the benefits of avoiding pollution where possible are multifold.

  • Restore for future generations

I believe that young people nowadays feel resentful at the way nature has been left, in a way that means they have to pick up the pieces. Rewilding is an opportunity to reverse that, and leave our ecosystems in a better position than when we inherited it. A legacy for future generations.

Rewilding and intersectionality – a note

I think it is important to note that the only reason we have to rewild, is because we have de-wilded. Europe did so so long ago that it is difficult to imagine how habitats looked before they were destroyed. North America, however, still maintains some indigenous lands, looked after by indigenous people, nature’s best custodians. It is important not to look at the rewilding movement as one of ‘saving’ habitats (that we destroyed), and instead look to learn from the indigenous philosophies, without marginalising these groups of people.

Historically, much of the (public) environmental movement has been vastly white, not taking into account both the viewpoints and vast experiences of indigenous people and those outside the white middle-class. This is counterproductive on so many levels, and, especially in the United States, where much land is still protected by its Native inhabitants, ignoring this threatens the strength of the environmental movement in its entirety. By its nature, the rewilding movement bases many of its principles on indigenous practises and beliefs, such as reconnecting to nature and respecting the Earth. It is important not to forget that we are late coming to this realisation, and we cannot afford to ignore local knowledge where it exists.

How can we help?

Donate

It is important to support charities and projects working to save and restore our natural ecosystems. This doesn’t have to always be monetarily – commenting, sharing and engaging on social media is also valuable. I have listed some great charities both in the UK and abroad below – please do support their work if you can!

Global

  • Amazon Watch – Since 1996, Amazon Watch has protected the rainforest and advanced the rights of Indigenous peoples in the Amazon Basin. They partner with Indigenous and environmental organisations in campaigns for human rights, corporate accountability, and the preservation of the Amazon’s ecological systems. DONATE.
  • Rios to Rivers – This organisation’s aim is “to inspire the protection of rivers through youth-focused experiential and educational cross-culture exchange programs, where underserved students are empowered to become informed stewards and ambassadors for their rivers and the communities who depend on them. DONATE.
  • National Parks Conservation Association – The NPCA works to protect and enhance the US’s national parks. The charity has been going for over 100 years, protecting both habitats and policy changes that would put the national parks and their inhabitants at risk. DONATE.

UK

  • Woodland Trust – Specifically a charity for UK’s woodlands, this trust works to restore and protect ancient woodlands, and campaign for policy changes where they are needed. DONATE.
  • Rewilding Britain – Launched in 2015, Rewilding Britain seeks to tackle the climate emergency and species extinction by restoring ecosystems to their ‘natural’ state, providing jobs in the process. DONATE.
  • Heal Rewilding – A new nationwide charity which looks to buy up low-grade, non productive land and passively return it to its wild state. The sites will be in easy reach of cities for the most benefit. DONATE.
  • National Parks UK – There are 15 national parks in the UK, and this organisation works to manage the maintenance and restoration of these spaces, while also benefitting local communities.
  • London Wildlife Trust – London’s wildlife has been under threat for its whole history, but the LWT helps to manage and expand natural spaces through the work of volunteers and members. It has been particularly hard-hit by COVID. DONATE.

Educate

  • Educate yourself. Join charities, work with NGOs, volunteer, read. I am still learning so much everyday, because I choose to research and look up topics that are important to me.
  • Share articles, educational social media pages, new studies and more with friends and family. Until nature moves to the forefront of our minds, it’s easy to forget how vital it is, and how much we can help or harm it with our actions.
  • Remember intersectionality in your activism. I have been guilty of viewing environmentalism from a purely white, UK-centric viewpoint, but this ignores a huge number of people who are both fighting for, and impacted by nature and natural ecosystems.

In your backyard

According to the Royal Horticultural Society, the number of front gardens totally paved over tripled between 2005 and 2015. With fewer and fewer green spaces in towns and cities, niches for insects and birds are declining. Check out this piece for ways we can increase biodiversity from home, and read this for some of my favourite plant shops.

There are a million things we could all be doing to decrease our footprint on the planet and increase the number of wild spaces, both here in the UK and all around the world. I’ll be the first to put my hand up and say I’m not doing enough, but I hope articles like these help you realise some of the many ways we can have an impact. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below or over on Instagram.

If you enjoyed this article, please consider making a small contribution. Feel free to make any article suggestions while you’re at it!

Many thanks to Hattie for helping me research this topic! If you’re into sustainability (why else would you be here?), give her a follow on Instagram.

Dharana Wellness Centre, Hilton Shillim Estate, India

Travelling has always been something I love, and spending too much time in one place gives me itchy feet to explore anywhere else, be it the Surrey hills or half way across the world. For a long time, I have wanted to visit India. The cuisine is one of my favourites, focusing heavily on vegetables and plant-based foods, exquisitely flavoured and perfectly balanced.

I recently had the privilege of being able to travel to the Dhahran Wellness Centre (the Dharana at Shillim estate near Mumbai), partly as a birthday present to my partner, and partly for work. With its focus on wellness and conservation, I knew it was the perfect fit!

Shillim was originally a conservation project by two brothers, who bought land to protect it from slash-and-burn, the practise of cutting down forests and burning them in the summer to create more fertile land for agriculture. Over time the brothers were able to buy and reforest more and more pieces of adjacent land. Now the site is around 3000 acres, within which sits the 330 acre eco retreat (of which 70 acres is the wellness facility).

Location & accommodation

We travelled from another local retreat, but the drive from Mumbai airport is around 3 hours. It’s long considering the distance, but compared to some of the other local roads, the journey was smooth and seamless! The hotel provides airport transfers for a fee.

The surrounding forests are what make this retreat so special for me. It creates a supremely idyllic setting, somewhat more humid than the surrounding areas, and brimming with local wildlife. The rooms are tucked away off the road that winds through the centre of the site, and thanks to the fact that they are all low-rise, all of them are quite well hidden in the forest. We were lucky enough to be placed in one of their pool villas, although all the rooms look spectacular – the spa villas have beautiful balconies with views over the surrounding valley.

The villa was gorgeous and spacious, sleeping 2-3 (a spare bed can be added on request). Ours had a private pool and was situated close to the wellness centre – perfect for guests on any wellness programme.

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Not a bad place to enjoy the sunshine! Swimsuit from Davy J

Wellness programme

Dharana seeks to help guests reconnect with nature and their bodies thorough a range of wellness programmes. Whether your stay is 3 nights or 2 weeks, programmes are available for all health goals.

Each stay commences with a questionnaire (completed in advance) and a Ayureveda/naturopathy consultation to determine the best diet, treatments and activities each guest should take on. Once drawn out, the guest is given a daily plan complete with activities, massages, treatments etc., and after the stay there is a departure consultation aiming to provide each guest with simple steps to continue the dharana way of life at home (both dietary recommendations and naturopathic suggestions).

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Treatments are incredibly varied and are planned for you after your initial consultation

Since both Fiann and I already eat healthily and enjoy staying active, our programme was focussed around relaxation (plenty of treatments), increasing focus and enjoying the nature reserve. I couldn’t think of anything better!

Food

One of my favourite parts of travelling is the food! However, in the past I have struggled with ‘healthy’ or ‘wellness’ menus, which provide watered-down versions of dishes, or portions so small they are finished before you know what’s happened. Thankfully, after speaking with our doctor, we were assured that the food would be healthy, but in line with our desires – that is to say delicious, traditional and filling.

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The food was incredible – one of my favourites was the traditional (but healthified) thali

The food certainly did not disappoint. Although the individual dishes were sometimes smaller than I would help myself to (not hard, considering my normal portion sizes), I never came away from a meal feeling like I hadn’t had enough. In fact, I was full for almost our entire stay! This was some of the best food I have ever eaten and a wonderful introduction to all the dishes India has to offer!

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My favourite breakfast was dosa and paratha

One thing I would say is that if you want traditional, large, ghee-filled Indian meals, this isn’t the place – the meals are delicious but delicate. In the Green Table, the dharana (wellness) restaurant, traditional ingredients are cooked using modern culinary knowledge to create traditional-tasting food based on Ayurevedic traditions with modern-day health benefits. All I know is that it tastes blooming amazing.

The hotel has one more restaurant, Terrazzo, which serves a combination of Indian and global cuisine. We ate here once (from the buffet) and it was delicious, but does not compare to the home-grown, fine dining feel of the Green Table. However, if you’re looking for somewhere that serves alcohol or coffee, this is your place (or head to the Mountain Bar & Bistro – bruschetta pictured below). The Green Table is for wholesome ingredients only!

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The Green Table gets many of its ingredients from its on-site organic farm (complete with friendly farm cat).

Activities

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Hike to Shillim peak – we hiked up in 18 minutes and ran down in 9!

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You can also practise yoga on the peak

I was amazed when I found out that most of the activities held at Dharana are privately run. From bird-watching to block painting or pottery, if you choose to sign up you can guarantee a personalised feel. We loved every single activity we tried – I’ll let the photos speak for themselves, but so you know, we did:

  • Forest Bathing
  • Birding trail
  • Sunrise hike
  • Hike to shillim peak (above)
  • Cycling trail (below)
  • Block painting (below)

Our only problem is that we didn’t stay longer! We heard about a 6 hour hike on our penultimate day, but didn’t have time to fit it in, which was a real shame!

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We cycled at 6:30am to see the sunrise!

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Our birding trail didn’t just involve birds!

I adored our stay at the Dharana Wellness Centre, and would love to go back for longer after the rainy season sometime, where the activities are focussed around the rejuvenated forests, waterfalls and rivers. I can imaging coming back here over and over again and never getting bored, which is what I now plan to do!

Have you ever been to India? Would you like to visit somewhere like this? Comment below!

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Too many photos, not enough space

This trip was very kindly gifted by Dharana at Shillim, but as always all views are my own.

nb/ I offset my total carbon footprint from general living monthly, and offset the flights from this trip. Although not a perfect alternative to not flying at all, you can read my thoughts on Carbon Offsetting here.

 

Seven Worlds, One Planet – what can we do to help?

The latest episode of BBC’s Seven Worlds, One Planet left viewers devastated and reeling, after the true impact of poaching was seen so starkly on screen. Mountains of confiscated tusks were piled up, representing just half of the elephants killed in Africa in just one year.

“Elephants have used their great intelligence to help them survive Africa’s driest times for millennia, but today they face an even greater threat,” said David Attenborough, before appearing next to the two last remaining Northern White rhinos in the world, destined for extinction.

This series has been one of the first BBC-Attenborough collaborations to lay out, from the very beginning, the plight of the many incredible animals shown, thanks to climate change. They even showed the filming process, where the effects of anthropogenic climate change are evident to each and every film maker. Viewers’ hearts were in their mouths when the team were able to finally capture some footage of elephants in a clearing, before being shot at by nearby poachers. The result of the shooting was an elephant’s death, showing all too clearly how stricter regulations and more anti-poaching patrols are needed to make an impact on the incessant desire for elephant tusk, rhino horn and numerous other animal body parts, especially in the East.

So what can we do from here? Other than never buying products originating from the wildlife trade (furs, many traditional medicines, ivory jewellery etc) there are many charities doing great things to make an impact, and with a little more funding from each of us, real change could be made.

 

The best conservation charities around the world

David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

I applied to volunteer at DSWT in my final year of school, for my year off before university after seeing them in a programme about elephant conservation. Unlike many ‘rescue’ centres, DSWT is guided by real biologists and works with locals to find what is really needed on the ground. Despite the fact they never responded (I don’t think they work with gap year students, probably for good reason), I’ve been a massive fan since.

The DSWT doesn’t only work to protect elephants. Understanding that species don’t exist in isolation is key to conservation efforts, and DSTW work to safeguard habitats known to house many animals, not just umbrella species like elephants and rhinos.
Donate now. 

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International Rhino Foundation

The International Rhino foundation has been working to protect rhinos for around 25 years to ensure the survival of this impressive yet heavily persecuted animal. They work across Africa and Asia where the primary conservation efforts are needed. The charity works with local anti-poaching efforts, who personally protect each remaining population of rhinos. Here the problem is multi-fold – not only are the rhinos being hunted, they are also unable to regrow their population due to increasingly fragmented habitats and tiny population sizes. Just a few weeks ago, the last remaining Sumatran rhino in Malaysia died out. These conservation efforts are sorely needed.
Donate now.

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Recognise this lonely Sumatran rhino from episode 2? Its species has since become extinct in its native Malaysia.

WWF

The World Wildlife Fund is one of the oldest and most popular conservation charities out there. They work across the world and across species, aiming to maintain species diversity (more important than any one species) and habitats, from preserving the health of waterways to protecting forests globally. Their impact is extensive and thorough – a good choice if you want to make a difference wherever scientists decide it is needed most.
Donate now.

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WWF works with political parties globally to tackle wildlife loss

Marine Conservation Institute

While the plains of Africa and rainforests of South America do require significant help when it comes to conservation, marine wildlife is also severely threatened by climate change. Previously thought of as untouchably vast, people are now realising that our oceans are not only incredibly vulnerable, but also key to ecosystems on land and the survival of life on Earth. The Marine Conservation Institute uses science to catalyse international conservation efforts, and aim to have protected at least 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030 (currently the level is under 5%).
In December, Patagonia is matching every donation made to the MCI, so now is the time to donate!

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Currently, only 5% of the world’s oceans are protected. MCI suggests over 30% is required to have significant positive impacts on biodiversity.

Jane Goodall Foundation

Jane Goodall is a conservationist and biologist who ventured into Africa in the 1960s to learn more about great apes. In 1900 there were more than 1 million chimps living in the wild. Nowadays there are fewer than 340,000, and that number is rapidly declining. Using the vast amount of data collected by the Jane Goodall institute, the charity is able to inform conservation efforts and restore important habitats for our close cousins. I am a fan of the JGF because it is evidence-based, and uses chimpanzees – our closest living relatives – to protect areas that may otherwise be exploited, thus protecting countless other species at the same time.
Donate now.

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A graph taken from Jane Goodall Foundation, showing how conservation efforts have helped increase Chimp habitat.

RSPB

Conservation is not only required for large, fluffy animals half way across the world. Here in the UK, many birds, both endemic and migratory, require all the help they can get to survive and thrive. With the loss of almost all forest cover in the UK, as well as an increase in extreme weather events, the RSPB works to conserve rare species and lead on policy change. Donating to this charity closer to home could have noticeable impacts in your own back garden or local park.
Donate now. 

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Nature documentaries have the power to be a huge force for good. Past documentaries have been criticised for glossing over the human impacts on nature, and showing solely the most beautiful, untouched parts of each ecosystem. However, watching documentaries such as these can increase willingness of viewers to make lifestyle changes for the better and increase public awareness of the issues, even encouraging policy change and charitable donations.

People in the UK can watch Seven Worlds, One Planet here.

If you’d like to make more of an impact, why not consider learning more about fishing, ethical banking and green energy?