In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Rewilding

  • Introduction
  • Case Studies and Other Studies of Rewilding Projects
  • Journals
  • Definitions of Rewilding
  • Historical Background of Rewilding
  • Ecological Impacts of Megafauna
  • Naturalistic Grazing Management
  • Top-Down Versus Bottom-Up Control
  • Trophic Cascades and Landscapes of Fear
  • Defaunation
  • Succession
  • Functionalist Versus Compositionalist Approaches
  • Taxon Substitution
  • Concepts of Wilderness
  • Social Science and Humanities Perspectives on Rewilding
  • Future Considerations

Ecology Rewilding
Meredith Root-Bernstein
  • LAST REVIEWED: 04 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 February 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0211


Rewilding is an increasingly recognized approach to conservation and restoration, among academics, land managers, and the public. Although a number of different definitions have been proposed for rewilding (see Definitions of Rewilding), most approaches called “rewilding” include ideas about restoring a habitat to a less-anthropogenic state, restoring ecological processes and allowing them to take their own course without managing for a target ecosystem condition and (re)-introducing missing (usually large) species as a way to restore those ecological processes. Conceptualizations of rewilding and actual rewilding projects draw on a wide range of cultural and ecological ideas and practical knowledge, which are detailed in this article. Several organizations now represent rewilding interests to policymakers and the public and set up or facilitate rewilding initiatives in Europe and the Americas. Much of their philosophies, practice, data, and outcomes are not published. The Wildland Research Institute is an influential source of research on wilderness mapping, rewilding, restoration, and policy analysis in Europe. The European Centre for Nature Conservation (ECNC) supports and facilitates the conservation of large herbivore populations and their habitats at large scales in Eurasia through its Large Herbivore Network. Rewilding Europe implements rewilding projects throughout Europe, bringing together financing for large herbivore reintroductions and luxury wilderness tourism. Their European Rewilding Network brings together rewilding-related services and knowledge exchange. Similarly, the True Nature Foundation is a European foundation that works to restore habitats, reintroduce primarily large herbivores, and create sustainable tourism in nature areas. Wild Europe seeks to promote and lobby for the protection of large, “wild” natural areas. Similarly, the European Wilderness Society is an advocacy organization that identifies and promotes the stewardship and protection of large wilderness areas. The Rewilding Foundation is an international organization promoting and working toward the conservation of large areas of habitat and corridors for large carnivores. The Wildlands Network is an American organization that similarly seeks to conserve and connect large habitat areas and reintroduce apex predators. The Rewilding Institute in the United States also promotes protecting large habitats and creating corridors for large carnivores. There are also numerous site-based rewilding projects, which largely preceded the consolidation of rewilding as a concept. Many of these, through their creative rethinking of ecological and paleo-ecological orthodoxy, have influenced the development of rewilding practice and theory.

Case Studies and Other Studies of Rewilding Projects

Most rewilding projects have not been seriously studied from an ecological perspective. Consequently, knowledge of ecological outcomes remains largely anecdotal. Here primarily experimental or data-based empirical assessments of rewilding project ecological outcomes are reviewed, rather than accounts of management strategies, philosophies, or social impacts. Among the best-studied rewilding sites is Oostvaardersplassen in the Netherlands, in which large herbivores have been reintroduced and passively managed, which has been studied by Vera 2009; Cornelissen, et al. 2014; Cornelissen and Vulink 2015; Smit, et al. 2015; and Van Klink, et al. 2016. The Knepp Wildlands Estate project in the United Kingdom has published their data collection strategy in Hughes, et al. 2011 as well as a qualitative summary of outcomes in Tree 2017. The NGO Panthera’s Jaguar Corridor Initiative seeks to protect jaguars and create corridors for their movement across the landscape all across their six million km2 range from Mexico to Argentina. Although the potential impact of this project has been modeled, for example, by Olsoy, et al. 2016, its outcomes to date have not been assessed. The Iberá private protected area in Argentina, which has only recently embraced the rewilding label, has few and relatively anecdotal accounts of its species reintroductions, one of which is provided by Zamboni, et al. 2017. The famous Pleistocene Park in Siberia has been warmly received at the conceptual stage following a number of high-profile theoretical papers on Siberian ecosystem transitions, summarized by Zimov 2005 but is too preliminary to produce any empirical data. Tortoise proxy species introductions have been monitored and are considered successful (see Historical Background of Rewilding), while the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park (United States) has also provided extensive data inspiring to rewilding (see Trophic Cascades and Landscapes of Fear).

  • Cornelissen, P., J. Bokdam, K. Sykora, and F. Berendse. 2014. Effects of large herbivores on wood pasture dynamics in a European wetland system. Basic and Applied Ecology 15.5: 396–406.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.baae.2014.06.006

    This paper tracks the cover of trees and distance to the nearest grassland in Oostvaardersplassen before and after large herbivore introduction.

  • Cornelissen, P., and J. T. Vulink. 2015. Density-dependent diet selection and body condition of cattle and horses in heterogeneous landscapes. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 163:28–38.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2014.12.008

    Compares the diet and body condition of cattle and horses at Oostvaardersplassen and another Dutch grassland stocked at a lower rate.

  • Hughes, F. M., P. A. Stroh, W. M. Adams, K. J. Kirby, J. O. Mountford, and S. Warrington. 2011. Monitoring and evaluating large-scale, ‘open-ended’ habitat creation projects: A journey rather than a destination. Journal for Nature Conservation 19.4: 245–253.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.jnc.2011.02.003

    Describes how an open-ended monitoring and data-collection strategy can be put in place for rewilding projects.

  • Olsoy, P. J., K. A. Zeller, J. A. Hicke, H. B. Quigley, A. R. Rabinowitz, and D. H. Thornton. 2016. Quantifying the effects of deforestation and fragmentation on a range-wide conservation plan for jaguars. Biological Conservation 203:8–16.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.biocon.2016.08.037

    This paper presents a model of the possible impact of implementing a habitat corridor for jaguars in the Americas.

  • Smit, C., J. L. Ruifrok, R. van Klink, and H. Olff. 2015. Rewilding with large herbivores: The importance of grazing refuges for sapling establishment and wood-pasture formation. Biological Conservation 182:134–142.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.biocon.2014.11.047

    This paper follows the fate of experimentally planted seedlings in Ostvaardersplassen and shows that only those in partial or complete exclosures could survive. However, grazing prior to seedling establishment had a positive effect on seedling survival.

  • Tree, I. 2017. The Knepp Wildland project. Biodiversity 18.4: 206–209.

    DOI: 10.1080/14888386.2017.1407258

    A qualitative, narrative account of habitat dynamics and species that have established during the rewilding project.

  • Van Klink, R., J. L. Ruifrok, and C. Smit. 2016. Rewilding with large herbivores: Direct effects and edge effects of grazing refuges on plant and invertebrate communities. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment 234:81–97.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.agee.2016.01.050

    Experimental grazing and browsing exclosures were set up in Oostvaardersplassen. Plant richness and invertebrate diversity generally peaked at the exclosure edges, suggesting that many small enclosures may be a strategy to increase species diversity under large herbivore reintroduction.

  • Vera, F. 2009. Large-scale nature development—the Oostvaardersplassen. British Wildlife (June): 28–36.

    Explains the assumptions and logic behind evolving ideas about the prehistorical interactions of large herbivores with forests in Europe. Also details how those assumptions were challenged through management decisions taken initially with the goal of creating habitat for overwintering greylag geese at Oostvaardersplassen.

  • Zamboni, T., S. Di Martino, and I. Jiménez-Pérez. 2017. A review of a multispecies reintroduction to restore a large ecosystem: The Iberá Rewilding Program (Argentina). Perspectives in ecology and conservation 15.4: 248–256.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.pecon.2017.10.001

    Reviews the species reintroductions undertaken at Iberá Nature Reserve in Argentina, focusing on the challenges and barriers to successful reintroductions.

  • Zimov, S. A. 2005. Pleistocene park: Return of the mammoth’s ecosystem. Science 308.5723: 796–798.

    DOI: 10.1126/science.1113442

    Summarizes his perspective, developed in other papers, that the shift from productive grasslands to less productive moss and shrub-dominated habitats in Siberia was due to anthropogenic loss of mammoths and other megafauna rather than climate change. He discusses plans to reintroduce bison, other megafauna, and Siberian tigers.

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