A Multispecies Ethnography of Rewilding Practices in Europe

This research examines how rewilding approaches to nature conservation change relations between people and their environment in the Italian Apennine mountains: how is this new form of “wilderness” produced, and what happens when one’s home becomes a wildlife corridor? Rewilding involves managing nature reserves by “letting nature take care of itself”. This works mainly through re-introducing and restoring populations of large predators and herbivores, who are supposed to autonomously influence the ecological processes around them. In the European Union, this approach is increasingly applied as an inexpensive way to transform depopulated areas into biodiversity hotspots. Currently, rewilding organizations are working with local partners and municipalities in several remote areas, mostly in Eastern and Southern Europe. In the Apennine mountains, the main goal is to establish five wildlife corridors that connect a cluster of national parks, to increase the habitat of bears, wolves, ungulates, and birds of prey. Within and beyond these corridors, local communities need to learn to live with the incoming animals. For some people, rewilding offers the chance to (re-)populate the continent with wildlife, while for others, it threatens to perpetuate the depopulation of their region. My study investigates these negotiations as experiments in reforming eco-social relations.

Ethnographically, this project focuses on the scientific production of rewilding landscapes and the contested visions of what “the wild heart of Italy” could become. Thus, the project investigates the tension between conservation as a biopolitical project – aimed at regulating nonhuman populations and promoting certain forms of environmental citizenship – and as an arena of contestation, where new arrangements between humans and other species may emerge. First, I look at rewilding science in practice. Field biologists, guides, and volunteers mostly refrain from regulating wildlife, and instead closely monitor its interactions, for instance through camera traps or GPS-collars. This techno-scientific labour allows for ecological relations that are dynamic and often surprising. What opportunities and imbalances are created when strategic non-intervention becomes a politics of ecological care? Second, I attend to how local communities both resist and appropriate these emerging ecologies. Some people, mainly farmers and hunters, criticize rewilding as an authoritarian imposition. Others, often from the same groups, collaborate with rewilding organizations or independently incorporate similar ideas into their own practices, for instance in agriculture or tourism. Finally, how do these alternative propositions in turn influence rewilding practices and shape ecological relations?

This research contributes to the fields of both political anthropology and more-than-human anthropology. Its findings will be relevant for new conceptualizations of environmental governance in the EU. Conflicts between rewilding initiatives and local communities reflect wider debates about highly contested eco-political interventions, and issues like biodiversity loss need to be both understood and addressed in tandem with social factors such as rural marginalization. Concerns about rewilding also point to dissatisfactions with power distribution in the EU. In addition, this research contributes to the emerging literature on more-than-human relations in the Anthropocene. While this genre often uses the multispecies lens to understand how ecological crises emerge from the un-designed, out-of-control effects of human-built infrastructures, this research also asks how people respond to such effects. The “nature-driven” approach to rewilding aspires to transform eco-political principles: instead of striving to achieve control over ecological relations in an authoritarian mode, it aims to establish a form of participation.

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