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Rewilding - Writ Larger

November 2, 2013

Scenes from Burney’s recent trip. (Top left) Rare European bison, or wisent, have transformed an obscure national park in Holland into a successful dune restoration and a very popular tourist venue. (Top right) At the Oostvardersplassen, abandoned farmland near Amsterdam is now one of Europe’s greatest wildlife spectacles, with more than 1000 prehistoric-looking Konik horses. (Center) Heck cattle and red deer (elk) roam in great herds at Oostvardersplassen, with residences, powerlines and high-speed trains just beyond the fence. (Lower left) At the François Leguat Giant Tortoise and Cave Reserve on tiny Rodrigues Island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, over 1500 giant tortoises do the weeding in large-scale native plant restorations. (Lower right) In the Beanka Reserve of remote western Madagascar, spectacular, newly discovered caves, 30,000 acres of pristine dry forest, and an upcoming giant tortoise rewilding project promise to make this new undertaking an exciting addition to the island’s system of privately operated reserves.

I always tell folks when showing them around our tortoise project at Makauwahi Cave Reserve that what we are doing is experimenting with “rewilding, writ small.” By that I mean we are using these handsome substitutes for the extinct giant flightless ducks and geese in a relatively small, fenced experiment that tests some of the ideas that people like Ted Turner on his western buffalo ranches and Sergei Zimov at Pleistocene Park in Siberia are doing on much bigger scales – attempting to fill gaping holes in the functioning of damaged native ecosystems by bringing back keystone large herbivores.

But whereas these ideas are still mostly talk in the American — and Hawaiian — conservation communities, some folks elsewhere have already done it, and with spectacular results. For five weeks recently, under National Geographic support, I’ve been consulting and doing research in places where rewilding is a big deal, or soon will be, as far-flung as The Netherlands, Rodrigues Island, and Madagascar.

Rewilding in Holland? Right in the heart of this densely populated little country, those daring Dutch have done it again, decades ahead with the implementation of new ideas. I’ve been fortunate to be involved, as a scientific advisor to the Board of Directors of the True Nature Foundation, a consortium of scientists, conservationists, and animal breeders across Europe who have rewilding plans for large land areas from Spain to Rumania, modeled after the great successes in rewilding that have been going on in Holland for years. There’s not time and space to properly cover all the places I visited there and the things we talked about in meetings with all sorts of interesting “doers” in conservation and wildlife science, but I had some really special behind-the-scenes tours.

In a national park just outside Haarlem (west of Amsterdam), we hiked the dunes, where endemic vegetation is in full recovery, thanks in part to a magnificent herd of the rare European wisent – first cousin to the American bison and a familiar subject of the ancient cave artists. They were reintroduced several years ago to Holland from their last stronghold in Poland, amidst the usual controversy that accompanies rewilding proposals. Scientists have shown with their intensive monitoring that the endangered wisent thrive there, with plenty of healthy calves, and the rare dune habitat has recovered brilliantly. Of course, like with our tortoises at Makauwahi, the public – mostly folks who think they couldn’t care less about rare plants — flock to see the beautiful animals and come away with valuable lessons in the ecology of plant-animal relationships and a very positive feeling about prospects for rare plant conservation.

For me, though, the peak experience was to visit and roam among the herds – nearly 5000 big animals in all – that have done the work of restoring Europe’s oldest and most famous rewilding site, the (take a deep breath before you try to pronounce this one) Oostvaardersplassen. For a good write-up about the site, get a copy of Emma Mariss’ much-talked-about book The Rambunctious Garden. Since its beginning over a decade ago, after the government abandoned the expensive pumping of this 23 square mile marshy area no longer needed for agriculture, red deer (what Americans call “elk”) and Konik horses, shaggy short-legged equids with faint striping on the legs, believed to be descendants of the extinct tarpans of the cave paintings, have been reintroduced and number in the thousands. Heck cattle, an early attempt at producing aurochs from backcrossing old breeds, also roam the well-fenced site, while commuter trains and highway traffic whiz by just outside. One of my gracious hosts on the Dutch visit, Henri Kirkdijk-Otten, has been working on cattle breeding projects that hope to more fully recover the aurochs.

The result of this futuristic restoration has been the conversion of abandoned farmland and weedy swamps into something like a cool-temperate Serengeti, with an amazing diversity of plant communities dominated by natives. Migratory birds, including many thousands of wild geese of several species, as well as raptors, songbirds, and waterbirds, have returned to the site to make it one of the top wildlife spectacles in Europe, with thousands of visitors per year. All on old farmland and swamps nobody wanted anymore…
From Holland I made the long flight way down into the Southern Hemisphere to Rodrigues Island, in the southwest Indian Ocean about 400 miles east of Mauritius, to follow up on the sediment coring and excavation for a paleoecological project I started there a couple of years ago. You may recall from my blogs and magazine articles that this was the inspiration for bringing tortoises to Makauwahi Cave Reserve in the first place. At the François Leguat Giant Tortoise and Cave Reserve, biological entrepreneur Owen Griffiths has created a reserve on worn-out farmland that surrounds spectacular limestone caves (sound familiar?), where his talented staff has planted over 160,000 rare native plants of Rodrigues, and the weed control is done by about 1500 Aldabra and Radiata tortoises brought to the island to replace the two large extinct species found there until the mid-18th century. They have virtually stopped planting natives because even many of the very rare ones are reproducing on their own now, filling in the spaces left where the tortoises have eaten up the invasive weeds. Plant species written off by more conventional conservationists have become so abundant there that seeds and cuttings can be gathered for restorations elsewhere.

My exciting trip ended up in Madagascar, where I spent a couple of weeks on another of Owen Griffith’s projects, the roughly 30,000 acre Beanka Reserve in one of the most remote and pristine parts of western Madagascar. We explored the vast, little-known forest, full of lemurs and rare plants, that he has leased from the government, examining spectacular caves, many freshly discovered, for their potential for a future paleoecological project. But the real attraction for me, as much as I like finding new fossil sites, is Owen’s plan to fence a large area and establish a population of Aldabra tortoises. DNA studies show that one of the extinct giant tortoises of Madagascar is not really extinct – it survived on Aldabra. So, with a lot of paperwork for the Madagascar government, and a few years of studying and monitoring the fenced compounds to see how the tortoises interact with the rest of the native biota there, it might be possible that one day these gentle giants could roam free on their original home turf again, reclaiming an ecological niche they occupied on the Great Red Island for millions of years, only to die out from human predation in recent centuries.
That, friends, is what rewilding is about. Whether you like it or not, it’s the kind of thing that brings the best science available to bear on the huge challenge of healing ecosystems thought to be hopelessly ruined. It offers that rarest and most precious of commodities in conservation’s darkest hour – a real ray of hope.

By David Burney


richard segan on January 1, 2014

Once again--another well written article--these are some great projects--it is fantastic that Kauai can fit in with some of the cutting edge of science happening in the wide world.

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