Rewilding—the reintroduction of native flora and fauna—is critical in the fight against climate change. Here, six important projects from Argentina to the Maldives.
For 10 years now, one book has held a place in my ever-changing pile of bedside reading: Caroline Fraser’s Rewilding the World: Dispatches from the Conservation Revolution (Metropolitan Books, 2010). When I first bought the book, the term “rewilding” suggested to me the restoration of an Edenic wilderness. But, as I learned, rewilding is a gradual process, involving the reintroduction of native flora and fauna, so that nature can take its course with minimal human intervention.
In the past half century, the world has lost two-thirds of its wetlands, grasslands, and wildlife—and in the last five years alone, the planet has lost roughly 125 million acres of forests. Rewilding seeks to remedy that. It looks different depending upon the location, and the most successful projects consider both geographical and local community needs that arise when “giving the land back to wildlife, and wildlife back to the land,” as John Davis, executive director of the Rewilding Institute, put it.
The goals differ from project to project: For some, the point of rewilding is to create natural spaces for humans to enjoy; for others, it’s to reintroduce mammals that are critical to habitat rehabilitation. Yellowstone National Park, for example, successfully reintroduced wolves in 1995.
Wolves are native to Wyoming, but by 1926 they had been eradicated by hunting. Over the decades, the elk and deer population exploded. That led to overgrazing, which decimated new tree growth, jeopardizing the bird and beaver populations, both crucial to that ecosystem’s survival. Conservationists reintroduced the wolves (brought from Canada), and when you visit Yellowstone today, you’ll find a lush variety of habitats and wildlife.
There are other success stories too. During the COVID-19 lockdowns, when travel and industry were all but halted, air, noise, and water pollution cleared up—briefly. Animals explored beyond the boundaries they’d been given, and their survival rates improved. The “anthropause” made clear that nature can bounce back, even after suffering harm caused by humans.
While rewilding continues to face significant pushback—it takes money, time, and political will, and it must dovetail with the agriculture needs of feeding the planet—it’s more critical than ever. Here are some of the most fascinating rewilding projects in the works—and ways travelers can help green the world.
Ride through wetlands in Iberá National Park
Founded in 2018 by former Patagonia CEO Kris Tompkins, Iberá—a 395,000-acre park in northeast Argentina—is one of the world’s largest freshwater wetlands and grasslands rewilding projects, one where giant anteaters, collared peccaries (piglike mammals), and red-and-green macaws have returned. The Tompkins Conservation— along with the Rewilding Argentina Foundation, its partner in the field—has helped reintroduce such top predators as jaguars and giant otters.
Ecological restoration goes hand in hand with cultural restoration: Local guides lead kayaking excursions, canoe tours with horses pulling the boats through shallow waters, and overnight horseback trips through the wetlands that are based on criollo tradition and rooted in the guides’ Spanish and Guaraní heritage.
Key project: Reintroducing the jaguar
In the 1950s, hunting and habitat loss drove jaguars to local extinction in the Iberá wetlands. Seventy years later, in 2021, Rewilding Argentina released seven jaguars, who now roam the park. Conservationists hope that they will repopulate the area.
Patrol wildlife in Botom Sakor National Park
Since the 1990s, illegal logging and poaching have ravaged the jungle of this 423,168-acre park. But Cardamom Tented Camp (CTC) at the park’s center—accessible only by boat—provides a safe corridor into the Cardamom Mountains for wildlife, as well as a solar-powered, luxury glamping site for travelers.
Two NGOs—Wildlife Alliance and the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation—partnered to create the corridor, working with local rangers (who protect the forest by confiscating snares and confronting poachers) to make it a haven for such animals as Asian elephants, clouded leopards, and green peafowl.
Guests can take ranger-guided treks through evergreen forests and kayak along the Preak Tachan River, possibly spotting gibbons, otters, and abundant birdlife along the way. For the intrepid, an overnight patrol with rangers includes learning survival skills, tracking wildlife, and sleeping in a tent beneath the stars.
Key project: Park ranger patrols
Cambodia has one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world, and wildlife trafficking is a lucrative business, which makes guarding the jungle difficult. Twelve rangers, some of whom are former poachers, patrol the 44,470-acre portion CTC oversees. Patrols can sometimes last a week—during the rainy season roads and trails get washed out—and confronting poachers can be dangerous.
Proof of the rangers’ success is the tranquility of the camp, as well as the thousands of confiscated snares on display at the ranger station. In the last five years, they’ve rid the area of nearly 99 percent of poachers and loggers.
Plant trees in Gorongosa National Park
When Greg Carr, president of the Gorongosa Project in Gorongosa National Park, first drove through the park in 2004, he saw “perhaps one baboon or warthog.” A 15-year civil war had decimated the area’s wildlife. Today, if you drive through the park—which includes roughly 1,500 square miles of mountainsides, plateau forests, escarpment canyons, palm savannas, and wetlands—you see wildebeests, elephants, lions, hippos, fish eagles, and baboons, among other species.
Gorongosa’s recovery involved two phases of rewilding: Beginning in 2006, the park reintroduced herbivores (buffalo, wildebeests, zebras, and more) to help the ecosystem recover on its own; in 2018, it began reintroducing such carnivores as cheetahs, followed by the first leopard in 2020.
Park visitors can explore current rewilding research at the E.O. Wilson lab or join park warden Pedro Muagura in planting native trees. They can also learn about his Sena culture and, to understand the holistic process required to protect the rain forest, visit the coffee plantation Muagura founded.
Key project: Launching a coffee farm
In 2011, Muagura planted the first arabica coffee tree on Mount Gorongosa, providing an income while also restoring the forest. (Shade-grown coffee plantations provide critical homes for local insects and migratory birds.) Today, some 858 people (350 are women) care for around 650,000 coffee trees per year, creating an income-producing alternative to tourism in case of, say, a global pandemic.
Track bison in the Southern Carpathian Mountains
These grand mountains—also known as the Transylvanian Alps—contain some of Europe’s last remaining old-growth forests, as well as valleys, deep caves, and a healthy population of bears, wolves, and lynx. Yet this ecosystem has been threatened by years of illegal logging—and it’s been missing a keystone species for at least 200 years: the European bison.
The European bison has been around for thousands of years: It’s been depicted in cave paintings, and its curved horns were used as ornate cups in the Middle Ages. Bison consume copious amounts of grasses, leaves, and bark daily, aerating the soil with their hooves and spreading seeds that get stuck in their fur or excreted in their dung.
They create open glades in the woods, where sunlight can shine on the forest floor, supporting flora and animal diversity. They take sand baths, creating micro-habitats that benefit plants and insects, then birds and bats. Their carcasses, when left to decay naturally, are a food source for many creatures.
Key project: Reintroducing the European bison
Rewilding Europe and the World Wildlife Foundation, together with local communities, reintroduced bison in 2014, and today some 100 of the animals roam free. With WeWilder, travelers can track bison in the snow and have fireside chats with local guides about the animals’ ecological importance.
Bird-watch in the Madrean Sky Islands
Mexico and the United States
Made up of 55 mountain “islands” surrounded by valley “seas” in northwestern Mexico and the southwestern United States, the Madrean Sky Islands constitute one of the most biodiverse regions in North America. Many animals depend on wildlife corridors to travel from one sky island to the next to find food and to breed. Among the native inhabitants are thick-billed parrots, leopard frogs, ocelots, and pygmy owls.
The Sky Island Alliance’s projects include connecting wildlife corridors, protecting critical water sources, and improving habitats for iconic cats, such as mountain lions and jaguars, the latter put in jeopardy by the U.S.-Mexico border wall, which obstructs their traditional migratory paths.
As part of a citizen science program, travelers can help survey springs, install rock structures to prevent erosion, remove invasive plants, learn wilderness survival skills, or take birding and nature treks.
Key project: Protecting sky islands
A sky island is part of a forested mountain range surrounded by a sea of desert and grasslands. Within the nearly 42-million-acre Madrean Sky Islands, mountain peaks of 3,000 to more than 10,000 feet host diverse habitats and microclimates that suit everything from snails to parrots to spruce fir. More than 7,000 plants, animals, and insects can be found here, and nearly half of all bird species in North America pass through at some point or other.