Home Must See Can the world’s largest rewilding project restore Patagonia’s beauty?

Can the world’s largest rewilding project restore Patagonia’s beauty?

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Purchasing huge tracts of land in Chile and Argentina, former clothing tycoons Doug and Kristine Tompkins have led a quarter century-long effort to reintroduce threatened and locally extinct species to the wilds of South America

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During an elegant dinner in the wilds of Patagonia, Kris Tompkins suddenly remembered the fresh guanaco carcass down the road. She rose from the table and drove us to the nearby grasslands of Patagonia national park, gushing about the possibility of staying up all night with a torch in hope of spying a mountain lion come to feast on the dead llama-like creature.

Tompkins searched the golden hillsides for the 100kg carcass she had spotted hours earlier. Had lions dragged it into the underbrush? Were the Andean condors circling above preparing to finish off the remains?

As she drove, Tompkins narrated her quarter century-long effort to reintroduce threatened and locally extinct species to the wilds of South America ranging from giant anteaters and jaguars in northern Argentina to Darwins rhea, a species of ostrich native to southern Patagonia. When Conservacin Patagnica the NGO she helped found bought the land that became this park, the guanaco population was struggling to compete for food and space with an estimated 25,000 sheep. But since the sheep were sold and the fences removed, native guanaco herds have flourished from an unsustainable population of several hundred to an estimated 3,000.

After purchasing a 222,000-acre property in 2004, Tompkins and her partner Doug, who died in a kayak accident in 2015, dedicated the following years to their conservation effort. Using hundreds of volunteers, Conservacin Patagnica has converted these overgrazed sheep ranchlands into a world-renowned example of ecological restoration by reintroducing and breeding native species as part of a comprehensive rewilding programme.

First coined in the 1990s by environmental activist Dave Foreman, rewilding large-scale wilderness recovery that allows natural processes and native wildlife to flourish has migrated from fringe fantasy to the mainstream of conservation biology. Scientists increasingly believe the complex web of life thrives in the absence of human intervention and is often heavily influenced by mountain lions, wolves and other apex predators.

I am a big non-human advocate. I get along better with the non-human world probably than the human world, said Tompkins. I would like to change the way national parks look at rewilding everywhere in the world where there are extirpated species, [and to] make it one of the goals of national parks everywhere. As they say, landscape without wildlife is just scenery.

Patagonia
Patagonia National Park, Chile: landscape without wildlife is just scenery. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian

Tompkins, a former CEO of clothing company Patagonia, and her late husband, who made his fortune from founding clothing companies The North Face and Esprit, have contributed $170m to the rewilding, along with an estimated $45m from philanthropists around the globe. By purchasing vast tracts of wildlands in both Chile and Argentina, the Tompkinses initiated conservation projects that have added more than 11m acres to the national parks systems of those countries. Their strategy of purchasing land, removing livestock and fencing, and reintroducing extinct species or reinforcing populations of threatened ones has become a laboratory if not a model for rewilding worldwide.

Compared to South America, with a lot of wildlands left, in Europe it is much more about restoring natural processes in large landscapes to let wilder nature develop, said Frans Schepers, managing director of Rewilding Europe. In Europe, the rewilding movement has large areas in which there has been a successful comeback of wolves to Germany, elk to Denmark, Iberian lynx to Spain and bison to central and eastern Europe.

Scotlands highlands, in particular, are being restored by landowners seeking not only to help re-establish missing native species but to replant the majestic Caledonian forest, lost centuries ago to logging and sheep that have grazed the land to a nearly unrecognisable shell of its former lush existence.

In 1989, the conservationist Alan Watson Featherstone founded Trees for Life, a charity that has since planted more than a million trees in Scotland. Scottish rewilding efforts also include the restoration of peat bogs and efforts to cull the red deer population, which has swelled beyond what biologists consider a healthy population due largely to the absence of predators including wolves which once ranged widely across Scotland.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/us

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