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rewilding

noun [uncountable]

a form of conservation which aims to return areas of land to their natural wild state, especially by reintroducing animal species previously found there

rewild

verb [transitive]

'A rewilding project is being carried out at Ennerdale to move the pines back away from the water's edge. And while this is happening, some 10,000 juvenile arctic char are being released in Kielder Water to establish stocks there.'

Sky Tyne and Wear 7th August 2013

'… South Africa has rewilded many protected areas in the last 50 years by reintroducing animals … In one Zimbabwe reintroduction project, a South African translocation expert captured and moved 500 elephants into a reserve where 35 years before all elephants were shot out to make the area into a cattle ranch.'

National Geographic 20th November 2010

The concept of turning back the clock so that landscapes return to their previous, undeveloped states may seem like the stuff of fictitious novels along the lines of H. G. Wells' Time Machine, but there's a form of conservation which is, in principle, attempting to do just that.

crucially, rewilding involves the reintroduction of animal species into particular areas, animals that were once native to that environment but over the course of time and human development had ceased to exist there

An activity now referred to as rewilding has the ultimate aim of restoring habitats to how they once were – effectively reversing the effects of time and human intervention so that areas of land return back to their wild state. To some extent this might involve ripping out human infrastructure, such as fences, walls, drainage ditches, or other agricultural structures. But interestingly, and more crucially, rewilding involves the reintroduction of animal species into particular areas, animals that were once native to that environment but over the course of time and human development had ceased to exist there. The idea is that the introduction of such animals, including predators, is a way of kick-starting the ecosystem again, so that all we humans need to do is stand back and let nature take its course.

A classic example of rewilding is the reintroduction of grey wolves into Yellowstone National Park in North America. In 1995, around 30 Canadian wolves were introduced into the park, about 70 years after they had been exterminated. This led to an impressive cascade of ecologically significant events. The wolves reduced the deer population, which meant that riverbanks flourished again. Within six years, existing trees had quadrupled in size and trees had begun to re-grow in valleys which had previously become bare. This meant that birds and beavers began to flourish, beaver dams in turn creating habitats for otters, fish, frogs and reptiles. The return of the trees altered the course of the rivers themselves, reducing the rate of erosion, narrowing the width of streams, and thereby creating more pools and rapids. Vegetation began to recover on the hillsides. In short, the reintroduction of a single species had the incredible effect of transforming an entire ecosystem.

Though rewilding generally refers to the reintroduction of species that have died out within a habitat during recent history (i.e. 100 years or less), the more specialist term Pleistocene rewilding refers to the reintroduction of animals which are descendants of species from the Pleistocene era (around 10,000 to 13,000 years ago) – animals such as bison, wild pigs, and Asian elephants (descendants of the mammoth).

The word rewilding is also sometimes used to refer to the process of returning animals to the wild after a period of captivity or rehabilitation.

Background – rewilding

The term rewilding was coined in 1990 by US conservationist and environmental activist Dave Foreman, co-founder of Earth First!, a radical environmental protection society. Popularization of the term in the UK is often associated with writer and environmental activist George Monbiot, who regularly writes for the Guardian newspaper on the topic. As well as its nominal form, the word also appears as a transitive verb rewild, often realized as the participle adjective rewilded, e.g. rewilded wolves.

The coining of the terms rewilding/rewild involves two classic word formation processes: conversion (adjective wild becomes noun/verb), and affixation (adding re-). The prefix re-, meaning 'again' (e.g. rewind, rewrite), derives from Latin and has been used as a combining form since the 12th century. Other recent examples of its use in new coinages include remanufacture and regift.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

For teachers

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This article was first published on 8th October 2013.

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