Call of the Wild
Organizations Are Launching Initiatives to Stave Off Widespread Animal Extinction
PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE CONSERVATION LAND TRUST ARGENTINA
The rewilding effort at the Iberá National Park in Argentina aims to reintroduce species like the jaguar and the giant anteater, below, to specific areas.
Climate change, deforestation and poaching all threaten the mass extinction of large numbers of animal species. By the end of this century, climate change alone could wipe out about half of the animal and plant species in the world's most naturally rich areas, such as the Amazon and the Galapagos, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
Rewilding projects aim to help prevent that by reintroducing species to their once-native lands. The Yorke Peninsula in South Australia, for instance, has seen an estimated 27 of 29 mammal species disappear. A government-sponsored rewilding project, which launched in January, will eventually reintroduce about 20 species into a fenced-off sanctuary that spans 170,000 hectares (420,000 acres). Rewilding Europe, meanwhile, is overseeing dozens of projects spread across the continent, aiming to rewild 2.5 million acres (1 million hectares) of land by 2020.
“A lot of species have become extinct from specific areas, and we're trying to bring them back,” says Sofia Heinonen, director, Conservation Land Trust, Iberá National Park, Argentina. Ms. Heinonen oversees a rewilding project to restore the ecosystem of 1.3 million hectares (3.2 million acres) of Argentina's Iberá Wetlands.
The Yorke Peninsula in South Australia has seen an estimated 27 of 29 mammal species disappear.
One of the biggest challenges for rewilding projects isn't animals—it's people. The project teams must conduct long-term engagements with the community and regulatory officials. Teams also have to build on and communicate each successful milestone so they can convey the project's benefits to help ensure future funding.
That often results in years of community outreach before the first animal arrives on-site. The Yorke Peninsula project, for instance, launched in 2009 as a collaboration among Naturally Yorke, the South Australian and federal governments, WWF and Greening Australia. The project team spent the first decade on planning and community engagement before erecting a mostly predatorproof, 20-kilometer (12.4-mile) fence stretching across the peninsula earlier this year. Plans are to reintroduce the first species into the area in 2020.
BLICKWINKEL / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO
The Yorke Peninsula rewilding project is expected to reintroduce species that have been extinct from South Australia for 100 years. It will include the woylie (brush-tailed bettong).
“Our biggest project risk was not getting the local community on board,” says Darren Grover, head of living ecosystems, WWF-Australia, Brisbane, Australia. “We had to get the communities involved and show them the project's opportunities and benefits.”
To accomplish that, the team held town halls and one-on-one meetings to directly address the concerns of farmers and other residents. For instance, farmers feared the reintroduced animals could attack livestock or dig burrows that could wreak havoc on their property. The team assured them the animals did not pose those threats. “Slowly but surely the farmers became advocates for the project,” Mr. Grover says.
Launched in 2000, with an expected end date of 2025, the Iberá project did not introduce its first species until 2007. “It first took many years of discussion and raising awareness of the project and its benefits to make sure we got the community onboard,” Ms. Heinonen says. That involved communicating the benefit of ecotourism that the project should usher in.
—Sofia Heinonen, Conservation Land Trust, Iberá National Park, Argentina
The Iberá team also helped secure the public's buy-in by having all of its team members live in the area. “Residents got to know us and see our work,” Ms. Heinonen says. “We've built these relationships over 20 years.” And when the team releases animals into the area, it invites residents to watch.
Even as the animals begin to thrive, the project teams cannot let up on their community engagement. “We can't take anything for granted,” Mr. Grover says. “We can't assume we'll continue to have the funding or the community's support.” That's one reason both the Yorke and Iberá teams rigorously monitor and report project results, such as animal survival rates.
Rewilding projects can take years, if not decades, to hit their intended targets. Even with a thoroughly defined scope, the Yorke project could take 20 to 25 years and cost US$10 million to US$20 million, Mr. Grover says. Given the uncertain timeline and costs, it can be tricky to establish an overall budget—much less secure all of it—at the start.
Rather than trying to get all the project funds upfront, Mr. Grover's team broke down the project into smaller phases and sought funding for each. That way, the team leverages the success of each milestone to help fund the subsequent one. For instance, the Yorke team obtained funds for the AU$1 million fence from the Australian government and other organizations before seeking AU$500,000 to reintroduce an endangered kangaroo species.
“This enables us to build momentum so we can get money for one activity, get that underway and then get money for the next activity,” Mr. Grover says. “We approach potential donors, let them know what we've done and ask them if they want to be part of the next phase.”
Similarly, the Iberá team builds upon each success to generate more interest and buy-in for the project. The team's first successfully introduced species was an anteater. “Afterward, people saw we could do this, and that allowed us to translocate other animals from other regions,” Ms. Heinonen says.—Novid Parsi