Sunitha Dhairyam is an artist who found herself fighting the degradation of forests almost accidentally. Dhairyam moved into a secluded house on the fringe of a protected forest in Karnataka, India, to live the life of a solitary painter when she noticed the severe conflict wildlife and people faced at the edges of unfenced, porous parks. She began putting all the proceeds she received from her artwork into finding solutions for the conflict. “I saw several resorts coming up in the area, most of which fence off their property and completely block passages for wildlife,” she said. “The biggest problem here is that space is shrinking and elephants, tigers and leopards that live in this park are very stressed. All they need is a bit of space - they have no interest in harming people if they get their basic needs - and the forest thrives with healthy populations of these animals, that are at the top of the ecological pyramid.”
Dhairyam fought off a potential resort-owner who was looking to buy property next to hers, and offered the farmer who was selling that land the same rate to just leave the space empty. No fences, no electricity wires, no development. He agreed. She now walks around this open land in the mornings, thrilled to see fresh dung on a claw mark on barks of trees. “If more people who are privileged enough to own land leave it open, to allow nature to take its course, we can tackle human-wildlife conflict, and also, in a small way, reverse some of the effects of mass deforestation that is growing at unprecedented rates around the world.”
What Dhairyam is doing is part of a growing trend around the world, where people are working to buy private land, and leave it to nature. It is a version of a term gaining popularity in the west - rewilding. In countries like India or those in South America, where top predators still thrive in healthy forests, the focus is less on the ‘re’ and more on the continued maintenance of wild habitats. It involves allowing degraded land to recover, resisting change in the ecosystem and buying up swathes of land that can be allowed to just be. It is a resistance against governments and policy-makers who sign land away to industry or urban development, not taking into consideration the ecological or economic value of old forest land.
In developed countries like the US and others in Europe, rewilding is about bringing back the lost magic of the wild. It is what Soulè and Reed Noss defined in their article ‘Rewilding and Biodiversity’ as “the scientific argument for restoring big wilderness based on the regulatory roles of large predators.” The idea is that top predators, when introduced into an ecosystem, are eventually able to bring in all checks and balances needed to perpetuate the ecological cycles that maintains life within it.
The most famous example in the US is that of Yellowstone National Park, where wolf packs, top predators of the ecosystem, were introduced as far back as 1995. Though the reintroduction faced opposition on many fronts - fear from owners of livestock farms and elk-hunters being the loudest - the carnivores were eventually found to benefit the ecosystem in a way that no policies or management practices could have. The wolves were able to control the elk population which was growing uncontrolled and destroying new-growth vegetation among plants like aspen and willow. The new “ecology of fear” that the wolves imposed in their new kingdom even changed the way the elk and other herbivores behaved, allowing open meadows to thrive, which eventually changed the entire ecosystem - so far as supporting rivers to flow through the non-degraded land again.
And Europe has tried to follow suit with the top predator approach - hoping it will result in a similar top-down ‘trophic cascade.’ Bears, wolves, wild boar and lynx are all in the running, some already introduced, and others waiting for the green signal.
In some way or another, people around the world are increasingly raising their voices for drastic change in the way we deal with nature, wildlife and climate change. Writer George Monbiot has written extensively about the concept, and as he sees it, “rewilding is not about abandoning civilization but about enhancing it. It is to 'love not man the less, but Nature more'.”