Wilderness in the making: Rewilding experiments across Europe

This research examines the politics and poetics of rewilding as a novel approach to conservation across Europe. Rewilding involves managing nature reserves by “letting nature take care of itself”: populations of large animals are re-introduced and restored because they exert great influence on their environments, for instance through hunting or grazing. Across Europe, this approach is increasingly applied as an inexpensive way to transform depopulated areas into biodiversity hotspots.
Using multi-sited ethnography, this project traces connections between research institutes across Europe and various nature reserves where rewilding models are applied, such as the Apennine Mountains or the Oder Delta. It documents how a diverse set of actors – scientists, rangers, volunteers, locals, farmers, or tourists – engage with rewilding as both idea and experiment. It interrogates the meaning of wilderness on a densely settled continent, in a time when virtually all ecologies are fundamentally influenced by human activities. How could human labour (re)create, manage, and maintain “wild” places? And what happens when one’s home becomes a wildlife corridor?

In one strand of fieldwork, I work with field biologists across different research institutes. Unlike more conventional conservationists, they do not aim to regulate wildlife. Instead, they seek to enable animals to shape their own habitats, and they closely monitor the often-unexpected transformations that this approach produces: new species appear, others die, and entire landscapes change. In a second strand of fieldwork, I follow these scientific models “into the wild”, investigating how various people in the vicinity of nature reserves appropriate such surprising ecologies. While some criticize rewilding as an authoritarian imposition, others collaborate with rewilding organizations, or even independently incorporate similar ideas into their own practices, for instance in agriculture or tourism. Thus, new forms of wilderness emerge through both the unexpected behaviour of animals and the creative responses of their human neighbours. Tying together such varied perspectives on the new European wilderness, this project investigates the tension between conservation as both a biopolitical project – aimed at regulating animal populations and promoting certain forms of environmental citizenship – and as an arena of contestation, where new arrangements between humans and other species emerge.

By investigating not only the impact of rewilding on European environmental governance but also wider eco-political responses to the Anthropocene, this research is situated at the intersection of the environmental humanities and the interdisciplinary field of conservation science. The project investigates how shifting configurations of control over other species create new political configurations for ecological care. As part of the “science and universality” working group, the project interrogates how the notion of “flexible” or “creative” natures, which lies at the heart of rewilding efforts, inspires the production of scientific knowledge.

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