Rewilding: Conservation through cores, corridors and carnivores

With almost a million species threatened by extinction due to human activity, rewilding conservation could restore biodiversity and provide valuable habitats for endangered creatures and plants. Central to the principle of rewilding are ‘cores’, ‘corridors’ and ‘carnivores’: restoring and protecting core wild spaces linked up by corridors and reintroducing carnivores. Wolves once again flourish at Yellowstone National Park, rainforest thrives on former ranch land in the Amazon, and livestock roams freely through nature reserves on English farmland. We explore three different stories of successful rewilding from around the world.

What is rewilding?

Rewilding is a form of conservation that arose as a response to the large-scale destruction of native flora and fauna by human agriculture, industry, and activity. Deforestation, pollution, fracking, mass agriculture, and unsustainable industry blight the delicate balance between biodiversity and a healthy environment. With up to a million animals and plants facing extinction, climate change further threatens fragile ecosystems already on the brink of collapse. Fortunately, there are new and existing initiatives to rewild areas of ravaged landscapes. Rewilding restores habitats for endangered species: ‘core’ wildernesses are connected by ‘corridors’, allowing species to grow, forage, hunt and breed across multiple, protected pockets of conserved green space. This approach maximises the plots’ potential for biodiversity so that more plants, animals, and insects can thrive with access to a larger territory. Conserving interconnected wild spaces and reintroducing predators is central to the movement’s ethos: cores, corridors, and carnivores.

Hunted to extinction in Yellowstone in 1926, wolves now thrive there, and have restored balance to the ecosystem. Michelle Holihan/

Wolves welcomed back

Reintroducing apex predators can be controversial, with opposition often due to safety and farmed animal welfare concerns. In 1995, however, Yellowstone National Park did just that – with astounding success after nearly seventy years without wolves. Wolves were hunted to extinction in Yellowstone in 1926; without the wolves, the wildlife and plants at Yellowstone became perilously out of kilter. Unchecked elk numbers resulted in the loss of many trees due to overgrazing, and the effects rippled: as a result of the loss of trees, bird and beaver populations dwindled. It wasn’t all good news to the elk, either. Without a predator to stabilise numbers, elk populations fluctuated drastically. Harsh winters spelt doom for hundreds of elk that starved to death in a landscape unable to support such large numbers. In a world-first, an apex predator was reintroduced to restore balance to the fragile ecosystem – wolves would roam freely once again at Yellowstone.

Fast forward to Yellowstone today, and you’ll find a flourishing ecosystem of interconnected species thriving in the protected wilderness. Since the reintroduction of 31 Canadian gray wolves between 1994 and 1996, the number of gray wolves in the national park has roughly tripled. Yellowstone is now home to at least 95 of these magnificent predators bringing numerous benefits. Elk no longer starve to death; herds are now leaner, healthier, and more resilient as the wolves cull the sick and frail. Researchers have seen the recovery of willow and aspen in the national park, as overgrazing has been curtailed alongside the elk population. With the triumphant return of the trees came the welcome return of other wildlife: birds, beavers, foxes, badgers, and eagles once again flourish at Yellowstone National Park. A howling success!

Restoring the rainforest in Ecuador, South America. SL-Photography/

Rainforest restored from ranch

Not all forms of rewilding projects start with the reintroduction of predators. Sometimes it’s necessary to start on the ground level, replanting plants and trees before wildlife can come back. In Ecuador, South America, Omar Tello has spent the last forty years painstakingly restoring a 17-acre patch of a former ranch to the rainforest. Amazingly, he largely succeeded with just the help of his family. Tello bought a patch of grazing land where once Amazonian rainforest had loomed large and thick-set, but the barren earth was now unsuitable for trees. Tello and his wife turned to sawdust (free from the local town) to enrich the soil. This took the couple fifteen years! Next, they planted native trees and soon noticed that other rare, indigenous plants were taking root in the newly reclaimed wild sanctuary – soon followed by a biodiverse collection of insects, frogs, butterflies, monkeys, and pythons. Tello’s rewilding efforts successfully regenerated the rainforest from deforested cattle pasture. He now uses his expertise to help others do the same.

“Rewilding offers a viable, cost-effective, and efficient way of restoring lost biodiversity to landscapes and restoring balance in fragile ecosystems.”

Rewilding success in Sussex

The balance between farming and conservation can be fraught. However, on a rural farm in West Sussex, England, Charlie Burrell and Isabella Tree have pioneered an alternative approach to agriculture that uses the principles of rewilding at Knepp Estate. Knepp stretches over 3,500 acres of land. The once intensively cultivated farmland is now one of the best examples of rewilding practices integrated into sustainable farming. Internal fencing at Knepp has been removed. Cattle, pigs, and deer are allowed to graze freely, which prevents overgrazing. Since 2000, Knepp has increased woodland and scrubland habitats for wildlife by 1.3 million square metres. Wetlands, essential for wading birds, have been reclaimed by restoring floodplains through the use of land drains and ditch blocking. As a result, biodiversity has thrived – Knepp is now a haven for threatened species of fungi, birds, reptiles, bats, and insects. Their efforts have not gone unnoticed. Queen Mary University of London researchers are now working on a project to help Knepp by measuring successes and extrapolating data that could be used to help future rewilding projects. Excitingly, Burrell and Tree aim to reintroduce a new carnivore to the reserves in the future: wild cats.

A success story: rewilding at Knepp Estate. Tony Skerl/

Return to the rewild

Rewilding offers a viable, cost-effective and efficient way of restoring lost biodiversity to landscapes and restoring balance in fragile ecosystems, thereby providing refuge for endangered species while also offsetting climate change through carbon capture. Yellowstone National Park in America, Omar Tello’s rainforest in Ecuador, and Knepp Estate in England are three success stories. With each new rewilding initiative comes new knowledge to foster sustainable practices. On a global scale, we must safeguard wilderness and restore cores, corridors and carnivores to the natural landscapes. For every species to thrive in the future, it’s going to be necessary to return to the rewild – whether that’s through a herculean effort to reclaim the Amazonian rainforest, or simply leaving a wild patch at the bottom of the garden. Think the stinging nettles need weeding? They’re vital for peacock butterflies, a safe place for egg-laying. There’s never been a better excuse to let nature run its course.


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