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date: 18 June 2019

Summary and Keywords

Rewilding aims at maintaining or even increasing biodiversity through the restoration of ecological and evolutionary processes using extant keystone species or ecological replacements of extinct keystone species that drive these processes. It is hailed by some as the most exciting and promising conservation strategy to slow down or stop what is considered to be the greatest mass extinction of species since the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Others have raised serious concerns about the many scientific and societal uncertainties and risks of rewilding. Moreover, despite its growing popularity, rewilding has made only limited inroads within the conservation mainstream and still has to prove itself in practice.

Rewilding differs from traditional restoration in at least two important respects. Whereas restoration has typically focused on the recovery of plants communities, rewilding has drawn attention to animals, particularly large carnivores and large herbivores. Whereas restoration aims to return an ecosystem back to some historical condition, rewilding is forward-looking rather than backward-looking: it examines the past not so much to recreate it, but to learn from the past how to activate and maintain the natural processes that are crucial for biodiversity conservation.

Rewilding makes use of a variety of techniques to re-establish these natural processes. Besides the familiar method of reintroducing animals in areas where populations have decreased dramatically or even gone extinct, rewilders also employ some more controversial methods, including back breeding to restore wild traits in domesticated species, taxon substitution to replace extinct species by closely related species with similar roles within an ecosystem, and de-extinction to bring extinct species back to life again using advanced biotechnological technologies such as cloning and gene editing.

Rewilding has clearly gained the most traction in North America and Europe, which have several key features in common. Both regions have recently experienced a spontaneous return of wildlife. Rewilders on both sides of the Atlantic are aware, however, that this wildlife resurgence is not that impressive, given that we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, which is characterized by the loss of large-bodied animals known as megafauna. The common goal is to bring back such megafaunal species because of their importance for maintaining and enhancing biodiversity. Last, both North American and European rewilders perceive the extinction crisis through the lens of the island theory, which shows that the number of species in an area depends on its size and degree of isolation—hence their special attention to the spatial aspects of rewilding.

But rewilding projects on both sides of the Atlantic not only have much in common, they also differ in certain aspects. North American rewilders have adopted the late Pleistocene as a reference period and have emphasized the role of predation by large carnivores, while European rewilders have opted for the mid-Holocene and put more focus on naturalistic grazing by large herbivores.

Keywords: wildlife recovery, sixth mass extinction, megafauna ecology, conservation biology, island biogeography, Pleistocene rewilding, naturalistic grazing, de-extinction

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