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De-Wilding versus Re-Wilding

On a research survey in Nepal, I once stared into the eyes of a wild tiger, whilst dangling from the trunk of an elephant. The great beast had gone into sharp reverse, catapulting me from my observation post on its neck, as the tiger leapt from under a bush and charged. Laura saved my life, by rapidly stretching out to seize my trouser belt, as I dangled head down gripping the Phanit’s leg, whilst he urged the elephant to retreat faster. Few wives can move at the speed of a rattlesnake. It was all a little too close for comfort.

And that’s our usual default isn’t it. We’re all a little more comfortable with de-wilding, than re-wilding. Nature on a TV screen, accompanied by Sir David’s reassuring drone is much less frightening to face, than nature in the raw.

For me, de-wilding gloom reached its zenith with last year’s scientific publication of the ‘Second Warning to Humanity’[1], to which I was a signatory. Of nine critical measures of global environmental health monitored since the first warning 25 years ago, only one has improved – the hole in the ozone layer. We are all witnessing nature’s car crash in slow motion. So how can we engage reverse?

Alladale Wilderness Reserve, Scotland. Photo: Andrew W. Mitchell 2018

First, lets look at some de-wilding facts. There are 391,000 species of plants on earth, one in five of which are threatened with extinction. Of 7000 edible plants, we mainly eat just 30, and industrial agriculture has channelled 60% our global dependency down to just four (rice, wheat, maize and potato) [2]. In India alone there are 1000 varieties of mango but you won’t see many of them in any supermarket because efficiencies require supply chain simplification, in favour of mono-culture propped up by fertilizer and agrochemicals.

Take insects? On the banks of the Napo river in Ecuador’s rainforests, I used to enjoy, fried giant caterpillars; $1 for five on a stick, as crunchy as prawns. Back in the ‘80s, scientifically exploring the rainforest canopy, I found 40% of all life on earth lived up there. New species were the norm. In Germany over the last 27 years the quantum of mid-summer flying insect biomass has declined by 82%. That’s why if you are driving fast down the autobahn in a Porsche GT RS, you do not need to scrape their bodies off the windscreen. Globally the figure is near 58% [3].

What about mammals? As a budding young zoologist in Tsavo East National Park in 1975 I used to be charged by black rhino, regularly. There were estimated to be 16,000 in the park. Last time I could bear to look, there were just 67 and only five lived wild. Of 5,416 mammal species, 75 of which have recently vanished forever, one in four are now at risk of extinction.

What about soil? In October 2017, the UK’s Environment Minister, Michael Gove, declared that Britain was 30-40 years away from “the fundamental eradication of soil fertility”. A typical gram of healthy European soil will have 5000 species of microbes in it. These maintain fertility, reduce green house gas emissions, and combat pests. Intensive agriculture in Europe has reduced soil nitrogen uptake and soil aggregates by 50%. Soil mixing by earthworms is reduced by 95% [4].

So, is global ‘re-wilding’ an answer? It’s essentially about encouraging nature to take care of itself, rather than boosting it with agri-steroids to feed the world on the cheap, whilst stoking disease, obesity, defaunation, and disaster. It broadly advocates bringing nature back, as a power plant, to do the job on its own. It sounds simple, but with 7.6 billion mouths to feed, rising to 9 billion, is it so easy?

Image by Mark Dumont Flickr

Paul Lister is a philanthropist with a vision to re-wild Scotland. He bought 22,000 acres of upland, now re-named Alladale Wilderness Reserve, and planted over 700,000 Scots Pines. Once Scotland was covered in them. He offered a bold experiment – to fence Alladale and bring back wolves and bears. From the reaction you would think he was promoting Jurassic Park! Walking with Paul through the utterly beautiful valleys of Alladale this Spring, we explored the view that a collective fear of nature as it was, has descended on our increasingly urbanite world. Scotland’s landscape once filled with pine forests and a rich fauna, from Lynx to Elk, is now replaced with a baronial barrenness, that we have come to regard as ‘normal’. Yet nature restored and raw, could make more money than stalking or grouse and re-connect ‘the many’ to the spirit of wilderness, rather than just a ‘the few’.

Surprisingly Paul has found his vision antagonises both rich and poor alike. Estate owners fear the idea might catch on, removing land from their control and walkers fear their “right to roam” will be thwarted by fences keeping wild animals in and them out. Yet evidence elsewhere shows, that well managed re-wilding works for all. Consider Yellowstone where the re-introduction of wolves has led to a boom in game tourism revenues, now four times higher than Elk hunting and the natural culling of deer, saved money too.

Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu (left) launching his Natural Farming State 2ndJune 2018. Photo: Satya Tripathi

For me the seeds of the next agricultural revolution, that could reverse industrialised de-wilding, are emerging in India. Last January, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Chief Minister Naidu of Andhra Pradesh, told me of his plan to pioneer a modernised low carbon, low input, high performance agriculture with a new kind of yield: healthy soil, thriving biodiversity, diverse nutritious food and millions of happy farmers. This month he welcomed 10,000 of them to his capital to celebrate the launch of his “Zero Budget Natural Farming” initiative, backed by UN Environment and BNP Paribas. 100,000 farmers are already engaged in the pilot and he needs US$2.5 billion to scale up to 6 million more. So where could this money come from?

I have never laid eyes on a wolf in the wild. The only ones I have met have been in Wall Street or other financial centres of the world and they walk on two legs. They are very good at their jobs, scanning horizons for data sets, hunting down prey with algorithms, sharing 20% with their pack, both on the upside and downside. We need these kinds of wolves, to turn their brilliance to nature.

Because it is they who need to find ways to fund initiatives like this, through innovative landscape green bonds such as those that Global Canopy is helping to pioneer in Indonesia and Peru, and which are now being replicated into India. Hungry asset managers seeing increasing value in cause related companies, can use our portfolio screening tools, such as SCRIPT, to differentiate re-wilding investments, from de-wilding investments and gain tomorrow’s edge.

Todays banks and investors are driving de-wilding, mostly without realising it, through agriculture and infrastructure. Dubai’s 356 metre Gevora Hotel looks out on a manufactured wild world. You might think with a lot of sand, money and water, human ingenuity can do without nature but such vulnerable castles in the air really are just Anthropocene Parks and a lifeless forbear of our potential future without what keeps our planet and economy stable.

Wolves are not vegetarians, so don’t expect asset managers to stop salivating over profits anytime soon. But without nature on their balance sheet, they are living a dangerous game and whether they are in a Tesla or a Porsche won’t really matter, because right now, they are driving us all into nature’s car crash.

For more: Join the Intelligence Squared Re-wilding debate on 10th July in London.

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