The differences between rewilding and restoring an ecologically degraded landscape.

Published online
23 Jul 2020
Content type
Journal article
Journal title
Journal of Applied Ecology

Toit, J. T. du & Pettorelli, N.
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Rewilding is a developing concept in ecosystem stewardship that involves reorganizing and regenerating wildness in an ecologically degraded landscape, with present and future ecosystem function being of higher consideration than historical benchmark conditions. This approach differs from ecosystem restoration but the two concepts are often conflated because (a) they both rely on similar management actions (at least initially) and (b) it can be erroneously assumed that they both aim for similar states of wildness. Rewilding and restoring both influence biodiversity, and common management actions such as species reintroductions (e.g. beavers or wolves) can be integral to a rewilding project. However, in contrast with restoration, rewilding has lower fidelity to taxonomic precedent and promotes taxonomic substitutions for extinct native species that once underpinned the delivery of key ecological functions. We suggest the adaptive cycle as the appropriate conceptual framework in which to distinguish rewilding from ecosystem restoration. The focus of restoration ecology is to return an ecosystem to as close to its former state as is possible after a major disturbance, by directly reinstating it on the 'foreloop' of the adaptive cycle. In contrast, rewilding draws from the 'backloop' by promoting reorganization and redevelopment of the ecosystem under changing environmental conditions. If environmental conditions have changed so significantly that a regime shift is inevitable, then rewilding can facilitate the development of a novel ecosystem to sustain the provision of ecosystem services. Synthesis and applications. Rewilding and restoring both have their places in biodiversity conservation. In each case, their respective merits should be weighed in relation to stakeholder priorities, prevailing and predicted environmental conditions, the level of biological organization targeted for management, and existing and future management capacity. We provide simple schematic decision-pathways to assist in exploring whether an ecologically degraded landscape might be a candidate for restoration, active rewilding, or passive rewilding.

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