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ECOS 40(6): Book Review: Rewilding

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Nathalie Pettorelli, Sarah M. Durant & Johan T. du Toit (Eds.)

Cambridge University Press, British Ecological Society, 437 pages
Pbk £37.99 ISBN 9781108460125

Review by Andrea R. Gammon

Rewilding provides, as the editors intended, “a comprehensive, interdisciplinary overview of rewilding” (10). The chapters are all new publications that could prime a reader unfamiliar with the topic, but the deliberate focus on challenges to rewilding throughout the collection makes it interesting as well to those with more advanced knowledge of the field. The collection contains 20 chapters written by 40 authors and runs over 400 pages; it is an impressive and extensive volume that addresses environmental psychology, human-nature interactions, environmental history, and landscape and urban planning as well as the current state of ecological knowledge on rewilding.

One way the editors manage to make this broad volume cohesive is by bookending it with introductory and concluding chapters written by the editors. In the first chapter the editors grapple with the many definitions of rewilding (as many of the authors after them will do individually), while also making clear their aims for the collection. Their inclusion of the human dimensions of rewilding indicates that the book addresses the social context of rewilding.

The human dimension is central in an early chapter focused on rewilding’s conceptual basis. Author Kim Ward sketches a critical history of the idea of wilderness and argues that by organizing its efforts around wildness (i.e. the autonomous and self-governing aspects of nature) rather than the idealized, exclusive, and often romantic visions of nature lurking behind wilderness, rewilding might offer a “more positive and socially just conservation practice” (43). Ward’s argument for wildness over wilderness introduces a question that the book as a whole starts to answer: how can the spontaneity and unpredictability rewilding entails be brought into alignment with conservation’s science-guided practices and theoretical approaches? The contributions that go the furthest in addressing this question take the form of synthetic chapters on key aspects of rewilding ecology: trophic rewilding (Chapter 5); land abandonment (Chapter 6) large carnivore reintroductions (Chapter 13); translocation of species (Chapter 15); unwanted ecological interactions (Chapter 17); top-down ecosystem control (Chapter 16); how rewilding can be measured and audited (Chapter 18). These chapters are not mere summaries of the state of the art but instead engage ongoing and emerging issues in realizing rewilding’s conservation aims.

One of the especially insightful chapters is James Miller and Richard Hobbes’ contribution that compares rewilding to ecological restoration in considerable detail, and points to ways they could inform each other. These authors argue for blending rewilding and restoration rather than strictly compartmentalizing them. This is not to overlook the significant differences between the approaches but instead to suggest that they should be applied in different cases, based on ecological conditions and aims, existing management options, and other relevant constraints in a portfolio-type approach. For example, the authors advise that rewilding may not be the best strategy for supporting the provisioning of ecosystem services over time, and that more managerial approaches are better suited to achieve this aim. “The future shape of both the human and natural world largely depends on how well we accomplish the juggling act of deciding which tools are appropriate where and when” (137), they conclude.

One theme emerging from several of chapters is the idea of the experiment. Because rewilding’s aims are often open-ended and process-based, and because the newness of the field means that experience and scientific literature is only beginning to accumulate, rewilding projects are often understood as fundamentally experimental. James Butler, Juliette Young, and Mariella Marzano remind us in the book’s penultimate chapter that the success of these experiments depends not only the achievement of rewilding’s ecological goals but also on its public perception and acceptance, how conflicts between stakeholders are resolved, and longer-term distributions of risks and benefits. They advance the strategy of adaptive co-management for guiding governance of rewilding projects, especially when species are (re)-introduced. As “a dynamic, ongoing, self-organised process of trial and error” (395), adaptive co-management strikingly mirrors rewilding’s own guiding commitments. In an earlier chapter on the health and social benefits that might accrue to humans from rewilding, Cecily Maller, Laura Mumaw, and Benjamin Cooke also invoke its experimental aspect and envision rewilding as a collaborative experiment in urban areas, where broad swaths of the public can work together in the “remaking of urban ecologies” (176).

Another urban-focused chapter is ‘Rewilding Cities’. Authors Marcus Owens and Jennifer Wolch explore the ways in which human-wildlife interactions in urban spaces are already technologically mediated (with camera traps, webcams, and the like) and how the predicted advent of autonomous vehicles stands to impact urban infrastructure and wildlife boundaries. This, along with Marcus Hall’s chapter on the high art of rewilding will be interesting to readers concerned with rewilding’s aesthetic dimensions, which to the editors’ credit, are often overlooked in similar handbook-type volumes.

Christopher Sandom and Sophie Wynne-Jones’s “Rewilding a country: Britain as a study case” may be of special interest to ECOS readers. This chapter succinctly and fairly overviews many of the challenges, conceptual and otherwise, that persist in rewilding debates in the UK, complemented with a survey of 13 rewilding projects. Like most others in the book, this chapter embraces a vision of rewilding where people have some role to play: none of the projects they highlight takes a zero-management approach, and many of them actively engage local communities. The authors note with optimism that rewilding efforts have succeeded in navigating some of rewilding’s initial divisiveness by becoming more inclusive and sensitive to the needs of especially rural communities in Britain.

One limitation of the collection is its geographical scope: although the promotional blurb claims a “global” lens, the book mainly reflects the focus on America, Europe, and the UK in rewilding scholarship. The editors note that part of the difficulty with achieving better geographical representation relates to how the term has been adopted: ‘rewilding’ is rarely used in Asia or Africa, and Australian and Oceanic Island contexts can pose unique and difficult cases. Another weakness in the book is that there is almost no cross-referencing between the chapters. This would have been a useful way to link chapters together across themes, as well as to prevent some repetition of definitions and surveys of approaches to rewilding. Overall this is a strong contribution to the developing field of rewilding, and those interested in conservation in the 21st century will find much of interest here.

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Gammon, Andrea “ECOS 40(6): Book Review: Rewilding” ECOS vol. 40(6), 2019, British Association of Nature Conservationists,

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