Between 2000 and 2003, I was privileged to take part in a biological and cultural rewilding at the instigation of the Blackfeet Tribal Lands in Montana. I was part of a team reintroducing the swift fox, a small canid iconic to the Blackfeet Tribe and absent from their lands for some years. I'll blog about my experiences and how they affected my conservation practice in part II. Here I share my thoughts on rewilding in the UK specifically Wales where I live.
A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to attend a rewilding meeting at Bangor University. I was keen to see how the human dimension is being embedded in the various projects planned and in progress in Wales and elsewhere. I wasn’t disappointed – there were some great talks which inspired lots of debate. After the presentations, we split into groups to list our priorities for successful rewilding. How to effectively engage and recruit communities, particularly farmers and landowners, to the rewilding philosophy was a top priority for attendees.
Most rewilding projects will take place in sparsely populated rural areas where generations of farmers have spent their lives managing and controlling nature and producing food for people. These individuals identify as farmers just as we identify as conservationists and, like us, they have tremendous commitment to and pride for their work. Unfortunately, for these individuals, the connotations of the word “rewilding” conjure up images of wolves killing defenceless sheep on the mountainside. Media hype about large carnivores being reintroduced probably contributes greatly to farmers’ alarm because reintroducing large carnivores goes counter to farmers’ instincts, threatening their identity and their sense of control over their environment.
Away from the sparsely populated landscapes of mid Wales, the Welsh Valleys are undergoing a spontaneous rewilding process. For example, the river running at the bottom of my garden was once polluted and its banks treeless. I now often see dippers in the river and have buzzards and occasionally red kites flying over my house. However, older neighbours, used to barren coal tips and dirty rivers, find this very modest restoration alarming. One elderly lady called me for help last summer as she had been scared by a huge bird (a heron) taking flight suddenly close to her garden and telling me that “There are too many trees now – they belong down the country not here”. Her observation nicely Illustrates the metaphorical boundaries that we, in the west, use to persuade ourselves we are in control of nature. No matter how odd or inaccurate such concerns of urban and rural communities’ concerns seem to us, they must be addressed sensitively and not necessarily by the direct presentation of scientific data running contra to local beliefs. Prioritisation of scientific knowledge over local beliefs and perceptions has led to communities feeling threatened by “outsiders” leading to polarised beliefs and entrenched conflicts in many places. Engaging sincerely and meaningfully with communities will bear future fruit for rewilding projects everywhere and it was heartening to find this to be a priority by attendees at the Bangor meeting.
It’s an unfortunate situation in which to find yourself when your favourite domestic animal likes to harass and kill your study species. That, however, is the scenario we have to deal with regularly in Bouhachem where domestic dogs owned by villagers harass and sometimes kill the Endangered Barbary macaque. Apart from worrying how this might be affecting macaque mortality, there is the tendency to want to “do something”, but anything we do has to be done carefully as the Barbary macaques are as scared of people as they are of dogs. In the example of the wounded female in the article, we saw off the attacking dogs and stayed around to ensure the female was unmolested as she made her slow, painful progress from the ground up into the tree. As soon as she was safe in the tree, we left because her nearby family members were too frightened of us to return to her side. You can download the article here: www.barbarymacaque.org/publications/new-paper-dogs-disrupting-wildlife/
Other notable heart in mouth moments have been watching an exhausted, very heavily pregnant macaque sleeping on the forest floor and praying that no dog would suddenly, silently run in and attack her. Another nail biting experience was watching an adult male desperately trying to take a very small infant to safety as it defiantly clung onto a plant only feet away from a charging dog. Thankfully the male succeeded!
Our work showed that spring was the period when dog attacks took place most often and lasted the longest. Unfortunately, this behaviour coincides with Barbary macaques heavily pregnant, giving birth and lactating, so they need to feed for long periods, finding most of their food on the ground. We have no idea how this may affect infant survivorship. However, one dog had the misfortune to get grabbed by the throat by a male macaque demonstrating that monkeys are not always the victims.
We have worked with the villagers who own dogs, vaccinating the animals against rabies. Our field team regularly monitors macaque groups and stops any dog harassment. We continue to work with village communities on dog health and welfare issues as part of our holistic approach to conservation.