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Travel to Copenhagen

 
 

Born to Rewild, Denmark

29 January 2017

Bison, elks and even elephants could soon be a familiar sight on the Danish landscape, thanks to two pioneering conservation projects in the Jutland Peninsula.

Sixteen bison nonchalantly graze in a scene reminiscent of Africa’s wild savannah. But this isn’t in Africa. We’re not even close. We’re 12,000 kilometres away, in the deceptively bucolic region of central Denmark, which is putting itself on the global conservation map with the help of some hairy, hulking beasts.

This motley crew – a bison herd of four bulls, seven cows and five calves, sourced from Polish parks and Danish zoos, are part of a pioneering rewilding project, run by Randers Zoo, which is working to revive the lost ecosystems that flourished here thousands of years ago. Ironic really, that turning back the clock is the cornerstone of rewilding, as it’s a conservation practice so future-orientated that it’s turned heads in environmental and scientific communities around the world.

Fundamental to restoring these habitats to their natural, former states is the reintroduction of native large herbivores like bison and elk that have been absent for millennia. “We aren’t just plonking anything down here” asserts Ole Sommer Bach, curator of Randers Zoo. “The key is using indigenous species that have more connection with this land than the likes of grazing cattle.”

European bison (quite different from their American cousins) once roved the European landscape. They would run all the way south from France, into Russia and down to the Caucasus, before being hunted to extinction across the continent in 1927.

Surprisingly, wild bison are scarcer than Africa’s black rhinos, so how exactly will Europe’s largest land mammal ‘rewild’ the 119-hectare Vorup Enge water meadow, which lies just 500 metres from the city of Randers? “First of all the bison will keep the landscape’s light open by foraging on both grasses and trees,” Bach explains. “Additionally they will spread seeds, make soil disturbance and other natural dynamics. The idea is not to interfere. We want them to roam freely and let nature, literally, take its course.” Save for providing them with some hay during winter, this hands-off approach, a mainstay of rewilding, seems to be working.

Bison aren’t the only ecological engineers reshaping lands blighted by human activity. In Mauritius, Aldabra giant tortoises have helped disperse ebony tree seeds, Yakutian horses are doing the job woolly mammoths once did in Siberia and wolves in Yellowstone have transformed not only the national park’s ecosystem, but its entire geography – making it one of the most successful global rewilding projects to date. The Netherlands is also doing its bit by experimenting with species of red deer, Konik ponies and Heck cattle to recreate an ancient grassland ecosystem called Oostvaardersplassen. The trailblazing efforts of conservation initiative Rewilding Europe, whose mission is to rewild a staggering one million hectares over the next decade, is helping to put the continent at the forefront of a rewilding revolution.

Back on Danish turf, the government is upholding its eco-credentials by investing a cool US$23.8m to purchase farmland re-appropriated as nature areas – good news for rewilding. Yet despite their green motives, these large-scale and ambitious projects have courted some controversy amongst farmers and landowners, concerned for their livestock and the wider impact on the rural economy. Bach argues that you really have to look at the bigger picture.

“Rewilding is an investment for our future generations. We are the first generations of humans to know the negative consequences of biodiversity loss. That leaves us with responsibility for coming generations – a global responsibility.” In the wake of recent findings that reveal our planet is facing a sixth mass extinction event, in which 90 per cent of animals could be lost, Bach’s words couldn’t be more poignant.

But there is also the ethical debate. Surely there is an element of playing God when it comes to reintroducing species that have been extinct for thousands, if not millions of years? Jens-Christian Svenning, professor at the Department Of Bioscience, Aarhus University, makes the point. “Not any more than many other human activities. We now live in the Anthropocene epoch where humans are affecting the whole earth system. Rewilding along with other conservation and restoration approaches are attempts to steer us towards a positive path for the biosphere and hence also for humans.”

The Anthropocene era Svenning refers to is the first geological epoch to be defined by humans – regrettably, it’s not something we should be proud of. Taking over the current Holocene, it’s defined as a new age of highly altered ecosystems, caused by human intervention such as climate change, a mushrooming population and polluted oceans.

So basically, the bison could end up saving us, I broach. “In a way, yes,” chips in Bach. “But it’s not quite as simple as that. The bison are a form of Holocene rewilding, which uses species from around 10,000 years ago, but we need to think bigger than that.” Cue the sound of trumpeting elephants. Bach’s master rewilding plan involves turning the clock back to the close of the last Ice Age, by introducing Asian elephants into the wild.

At first it may sound bizarre, but the science is reassuringly bona fide. Africa and Asia may be famous for their megafauna, but elephants also roamed Europe (and North America) for millions of years, before disappearing around 12,000 years ago. Fossil records indicate they once lived in the Middle East and northern China as well. These creatures , along with mastodons and mammoths, had the biggest influence on their environment and their mass extinction led to a colossal loss of biodiversity. The bottom line – animals such as elephants allows more species to flourish, and are key to recapturing some of the evolutionary potential that was lost in the late Pleistocene.

The idea of bringing back animals from the Ice Age is, understandably, not without opposition. “The biggest challenge facing the introduction of wild elephants here is to convince people that such a rewilding experiment is not a ticking Jurassic Park bomb,” admits Bach. So it’s perhaps a PR problem rather than a logistical one. “We also have to find proper facilities to support the animals during wintry conditions and construct fencing that will not spoil the landscape,” Bach says. He goes on to explain that they would follow the bison model by starting small with just a few elephants and release them into semi-captivity across several hectares, before putting the full rewilding plan into action.

The two-pronged project would not only help rewild the land by letting the elephants coppice trees and spread seeds through their dung (a huge resource for beetles), but would also provide a refuge for the endangered species.

In the next 50 years, the entire population of Asian elephants is on track to be wiped out. It’s estimated that 55 elephants are killed illegally in Africa every day, and despairingly the only place they are safe is in fenced wildlife parks – often too small to accommodate their populations. But rewilding could offer up a two-fold solution and perhaps the only way to protect these species is away from those danger zones? An Australian rewilding project thinks so. It plans to airlift a population of black and white rhinos from South Africa (where one rhino is killed every six hours) as a radical measure to protect the species.

Close to the city of Aalborg, 60km north of Randers, is Northern Europe’s largest wild bog: Lille Vildmose. Five elks imported from Sweden have been expatriated to help rewild an area of degraded land. A bog may not be as exotic or as beautiful as a rainforest, but in reality, peat wetlands alone store more carbon than rainforests, and are more productive ecosystems than coral reefs. This, now protected, area has been weakened by years of peat extraction, and its future rehabilitation lies in the hands (or rather mouths) of five grass-guzzling giant deer, which are making themselves at home after a 5,000-year hiatus.

Currently overrun with birch trees and thick aspen, the vision for the area is to transform it into marshlands and lakes, alongside natural forests, where the elks integrate with local red deer, wild boar and otters to become part of a self-sustaining ecosystem. “The elks are expert tree trimmers and good at moving in soft and wet ground,” remarks Hans Henrik Henriksen, like a proud father. The city councillor and landscape planner is keen to assert their genetic advantage, explaining that their height and appetite (an adult can consume three to four kilos of dry plant matter a day) enables them to make a significant bearing on the ecosystem, compared to more vertically challenged animals. And of course there is the economic incentive – elks are a cheaper and more natural alternative to managing the landscape versus manmade tools and machinery.

Originally confined to a small paddock area in semi-captivity for seven months at the close of 2015, the two bulls and three heifer calves are now free to roam in an area of 21 square kilometres – a vast terrain to track five elks, I discover. “The less we see of them the better. It’s not a zoo you know,” mocks Jens Vinge – a former hunter-turned forester (and now elk whisperer). Not words you want to hear on a second visit to try and photograph the elusive creatures that continue to outsmart me. But he has a valid point – they don’t call this rewilding for nothing. Any interaction with humans, frankly, undermines the project.

Despite the odds, curious tourists have descended on Lille Vildmose in their droves, hoping for a glimpse of an antler or two. Maybe they’ll have more luck come March, when the family is set to double with an additional five elks joining the herd.

After countless failed missions trudging through boggy ground in sub-zero temperatures – and thanks to Jen’s elk app, which uses geo-tracking technology developed at Aarhus University – we do manage to get within about 20 metres of two elks for a fleeting couple of minutes. Fittingly, nature has the last word.

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