Over the last two decades, extraordinary progress has been made. Many landscape-scale rewilding projects have been launched, aimed at restoring “megalinkages” throughout and between continents: Yellowstone to Yukon, Algonquin to Adirondack, and Baja to Bering in North America; Paseo Pantera in Central America; the Terai Arc in Asia; Gondwana Link in southwest Australia; the transboundary peace parks in Africa.
In line with these goals, many countries have moved to place more land under protection. Only a thousand protected areas existed in 1962, representing 3 percent of the earth’s surface. Now there are over a hundred thousand protected areas worldwide, expanding conservation to over 12 percent. According to the United Nations’ World Conservation Monitoring Center, protected areas now represent “one of the most significant forms of land use on the planet.” While not all protected areas are devoted to rewilding, some of the largest reserves in the world, including the transboundary protected areas in Africa, are. Ecological restoration has worked wonders in Nepal’s Terai Arc, where monsoonal lands are recovering from intensive human use as people are persuaded to manage forests for conservation and supplement their income with ecotourism and sustainable native crops. In northern Kenya, a privately owned rhino reserve is guiding communities that are rewilding former grazing lands at the same time as it fosters lucrative tourism facilities in a region once devastated by poaching. Native forests and bushlands are being painstakingly regrown in Costa Rica and Australia.
To be sure, daunting challenges loom. Many parks around the world are still “paper parks,” without adequate funding or protection. Issues that threaten to stall or derail rewilding have included everything from poaching to the opposition of people living in or around protected areas, which were often proposed or planned without their input. Restoration itself is a flash point for organizations that fear it might undermine protection and encourage environmental depredation. While transboundary parks—stretching across national borders between neighboring countries—seem thrillingly idealistic on paper, implementing them has proven to be fraught, as planners pick apart political and legal knots while local people grow impatient.
As rewilding has entered the mainstream, increasingly accepted by international organizations, it has had to negotiate an uneasy expansion from a scientifically based conservation method into an ambitious social program. The institutions that fund major conservation and rewilding projects, including the United Nations and the Global Environment Facility, have pressed for greater sensitivity and attention to human rights, insisting that projects with a strict focus on biological conservation be expanded to encompass human aid, in the form of so- called community conservation projects. This has been controversial for biologists; scientists have reluctantly found themselves acting as social engineers, trying to design new economic opportunities for traditional pastoralists, changing the way people live on the land. Conservation organizations have rapidly evolved into groups practicing poverty relief on the side, installing biogas facilities in villages in Nepal or providing seed money for microfinance loans to poor women. In consequence, poverty relief has become bitterly disputed in conservation, with some biologists insisting that it is an ineffective and even counterproductive means of habitat protection.
Controversial or not, the unflinching message of conservation biology is that rewilding is not only a scientific necessity but also an ethical responsibility. Biologists no longer shrink from the overtly moral argument that humanity has an obligation to protect and restore wilderness. That responsibility, they contend, goes beyond any utilitarian argument. Noteworthy biologists from E. O. Wilson to Jared Diamond have pushed their colleagues to enter the political arena in the fashion of groups like International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, while religious leaders have encouraged their flocks to consider the moral implications of destroying creation. Biologists and clergy are being radicalized by the same shared belief, a sign that we find ourselves on the brink of committing irrevocable acts.