The secret to rewilding isn't animals It's people

A mountain bongo. 

To rewild an area is to protect its natural habitats, encourage native animal species to return, and allow nature to flourish. Done well, rewilding can reverse species extinction, tackle climate change and improve our overall health and well-being of the ecosystem.

But any project that fails to engage the people who live in and around the protected areas where this restoration effort is taking place is a recipe for failure in the long run. As much as people can contribute to the decline of wildlife and landscapes, they are also the only ones who can act as day-to-day, hands-on guardians of these crucial spaces. Only by re-igniting a connection between people and their native environment, can we motivate and inspire them to protect the species around them for decades to come.

The evidence supporting a community-orientated approach to rewilding has been long-established.

In 2013, a peer-reviewed study highlighted how displacing local communities from their traditional lands, restricting their access to resources within the parks, and providing little or no compensation, can make them hostile towards the conservation groups and their efforts. Often, this leads to conflict, compelling the communities to go against the established rules and enter a collision course with managers of wildlife estates. The study highlights how easily conservation projects can crumble when communities don’t feel invested in them.

Re-establishing this sense of connection is easier said than done, however. Last year, a tiger reintroduction project at WWF stalled when a cub was poached just weeks after its release, despite the best efforts of the conservancy.

This unfortunate event illustrates both the difficulty and importance of securing true community buy-in, which can only arise when people understand the full context of conservation and its purpose.

When we lose a native species, we don’t just lose a group of animals. We also lose part of our heritage and cultural identity. Conservation is more than just the preservation of a species. It’s the desire to honour a shared past by working collectively to create a shared future where all can thrive. The key to rewilding will therefore depend upon conservancies helping to re-ignite this spirit of conservation – encouraging people to see that the plight of these wildlife is also our plight; their triumph, our triumph.

While it’s important to acknowledge that community engagement, and indeed empowerment, is key to protecting the ecosystem for generations to come, we also need to ask how this can be achieved in practice.

The Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy (MKWC), for example, achieved an important milestone in its 17-year rewilding project of the critically endangered mountain bongo, one of Kenya’s most iconic animals.

Amid a biting drought across East Africa, the conservancy oversaw two successful rewilding programmes that marked the historic return of the species in its original home in Mount Kenya forest after almost 30 years of local extinction.

The achieved and envisioned success of the reintroduction of the mountain bongo in Mount Kenya is anchored in the active participation of communities.

Part of helping the Bongo thrive in its habitat is active stewardship of the afforestation program. 3,000 community members have planted some 35,000 indigenous tree species in Mount Kenya Forest – the Bongo’s key habitat. This rallying call for local communities to plant more trees will help combat climate change and protect the Bongo’s habitat.

Enabling communities to get involved in a hands-on way, as well as learn about the bongo and its cultural significance, helps strengthen their connection to the project. They come to see these animals not as ‘others’ but as creatures whose heritage and identity is inextricably linked to theirs. In doing so, individuals are equipped with the knowledge and lifelong motivation needed to protect the species around them – now and in the future.

Benefits extend beyond the local area of a rewilding programme as well. Hydroelectricity accounts for 58 per cent of Kenya’s power supply, and scientists put the value of water from the forested hills at $130m a year.

So, rewilding an area which leads to the preservation of a river can, in turn, create a source of renewable electricity through hydropower.

This – and the fact that local communities have been provided direct employment opportunities within the site – means such programmes can have a lasting local economic legacy too.

By thinking creatively about how we can give back to communities, we strengthen this sense of partnership and interconnection.

The long-term success of other rewilding programmes will hinge on communities continuing to uphold and support the spirit of conservation. Thus, conservation organisations like MKWC have a duty to foster this engagement, but also to do it properly. It’s not a tick box exercise in a ‘five-year plan’. Instead, it’s a lifelong partnership between conservancy and community.

The writer, Dr Robert Aruho, is the Head of Conservancy at the Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy.