Rewilding in Europe through biosphere reserves

04 May 2012 | News story

Europe is currently in the middle of an exceptional wildlife comeback boom due to large-scale abandonment of farmland. This phenomenon is particularly notable in the continent’s mountainous areas, which are running wild with robust, resilient nature. The time has never been more ripe for the conservation of biodiversity in Europe.  

The continent’s rewilding provides new opportunities for society and people still living in many rural areas to shift from a subsidized, natural resource extraction economy to a service economy based on nature and wild values. However, since an estimated 50 percent or more of all European species are dependent on open/semi-open landscapes, one of the main challenges has become to stimulate those natural processes which keep the landscapes open: wild herbivores, avalanches, insect outbreaks, wind, floods, erosion, fires, etc.

On April 26, an agreement was reached between the Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve Authority and WWF-Romania to work together on rewilding the Romanian part of the Danube Delta. The agreement was initiated under the new ‘Rewilding Europe’ initiative, which launched five large rewilding projects in 2011.

As a first step, a number of keystone species, including beaver and red deer, will be brought back to the Delta to kick-start natural processes that had all but disappeared. Natural grazing systems will also be promoted, starting with a translocated population of wild horses. The two communities of CA Rosetti and Sfantu Gheorghe in the outer Delta region, together covering 70,000 hectares of the 580,000 hectare Biosphere Reserve, will be assisted in the set up of wildlife conservancies modelled on experiences from Namibia. The new wildlife species, together with the already spectacular bird life, unique landscapes and interesting local cultures, have the potential of creating new income opportunities for the communities. The past few decades have seen traditional income sources from fisheries and livestock farming dwindle, leading to an exodus of young people and an aging population. The conservancies will also give the communities a much more direct role in managing a significant part of the Delta – a principle at the heart of the Biosphere Reserve philosophy.

Rewilding Europe is also working in two other Biosphere Reserves – the 213,000 hectare East Carpathians BR on the border between Poland, Slovakia and Ukraine and the 200,000 hectare Velebit BR on the Adriatic coast of Croatia. Together with work in Western Iberia and Southern Carpathians, the objective is to reinstall key natural processes and allow nature to again shape larger land and seascapes of at least 100,000 hectares per area with minimum human intervention. With another five model areas still to be identified and launched, Rewilding Europe, a joint initiative by WWF-Netherlands, ARK Nature Foundation, Wild Wonders of Europe and Conservation Capital, has set itself a goal to rewild at least 1 million hectares of land and sea by 2020. Rewilding includes stimulating natural processes in shaping the landscape, without aiming at a predictable end-state. A naturally functioning landscape that can sustain itself into the future without active human management is the ultimate goal of the rewilding approach.

Wildlife comeback is at the core of this approach. Thriving wildlife is championed as a key factor for healthy and self-sustaining ecosystems, as an inspiration and attraction for people, and as a source of revenue generation for economic development. This will allow wildlife to increase to even higher densities than today and assist in reintroducing missing species. Another key element of the Initiative is to help set up conservation oriented enterprises, using wilderness values as a basis. The combination of innovative conservation approaches, mass communications, and nature-based enterprise development has already attracted several large private donors and many NGOs.

The five selected pilot areas already cover a wide spectrum of different protection regimes - national parks, geoparks, natural parks, landscape parks, biosphere reserves, RAMSAR Convention sites, UNESCO World Heritage sites and Natura 2000 – making it clear that the rewilding concept is applicable irrespective of protection status. These protected areas are often part of larger landscapes where land abandonment is happening at a large scale and where rewilding provides new opportunities for conservation and local development.