Rewilding the World and Scientific Freedom

We live in a world of loss. Endangered species worldwide face dwindling habitat and threats created by a growing human population. Rewilding provides one of the best ways to fight today’s widespread human-caused loss of species, called The Sixth Extinction. Defined as large-scale conservation aimed at protecting keystone species, rewilding involves restoring natural processes and core wilderness areas.

Carnivore corridors, Western North America
Carnivore corridors, Western North America

Keystone species are those whose presence in an ecosystem touches myriad others. In a Roman arch, if you remove the keystone, the arch collapses. So it is with keystone species in the natural world. This is because keystones improve habitat for other species. For example, by eating sea urchins, sea otters help kelp forests thrive, creating habitat for fishes and other marine organisms. By eating and toppling trees, elephants keep African grasslands open, creating habitat for grassland birds. By killing and scaring elk, wolves diminish elk pressure on sensitive trees and shrubs, creating habitat for woodland species. However, it’s not enough to have token numbers of keystone species scattered around the world. To be ecologically effective, keystones must be abundant and well distributed in all sorts of ecosystems.

African lion in a Kenyan wildlife corridor, Goheen research project, Earthwatch
African lion in a Kenyan wildlife corridor, Goheen research project, Earthwatch

Why is rewilding so important? Because by restoring keystone species and their processes, rewilding directly increases biodiversity. Rewilding emphasizes maintaining open, high-quality habitat cores and corridors for wide-ranging keystone species, such as jaguars, bison, and sharks. This creates ecosystems more resilient to climate change. But it can’t be done without the freedom to do science on species that are sometimes politically controversial.

Wolf in a wildlife corridor, outside Waterton Lakes National Park
Wolf in a wildlife corridor, outside Waterton Lakes National Park

Rewilding has always been one of the pillars of Earthwatch Institute science. Since our founding in 1971, Earthwatch has been helping rewild the world by supporting science and then sending people into the field to help scientists collect data to conserve species like polar bears, elephants, rhinos, grizzly bears, wolves, bison, and their habitats. We put science into action to help find solutions to our most pressing species extinction problems worldwide.

Northern white rhino in Kenya dehorned for conservation purposes, Goheen research project, Kenya
Northern white rhino in Kenya dehorned for conservation purposes, Goheen research project, Kenya

Rewilding the world requires scientific freedom. In a political environment that is aggressively suppressing science, Earthwatch continues to fund research that rewilds the world. We have an impressive rewilding track record. Over the years we have supported research on 25 critically endangered and 54 endangered species. Scientists whom we fund have reported 166 positive impacts on these species, such as population increases and genetic improvements. Twenty-nine of our projects helped protect land for species at risk.

Killer whale in coastal British Columbia
Killer whale in coastal British Columbia

Rewilding the world requires mobilizing people. In the past 45 years, Earthwatch has funded 1,426 projects, fielded 105,000 citizen-science participants, and funded over 9,500 student and teacher fellows. Participants have contributed nearly 10 million hours to collecting data. We have supported research in 131 countries.

Earthwatch citizen-scientists studying the carcass of an elk killed by wolves, in Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta
Earthwatch citizen-scientists studying the carcass of an elk killed by wolves, in Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta

At Earthwatch we see rewilding as a roadmap to sustainability: how humans must live on the planet in order to survive. In the words of one participant, “Earthwatch provides opportunities for people to live their dreams, help the environment, and share the experiences and knowledge that they acquire.” In doing so, we are promoting the action necessary for a far wilder, more intact, and more sustainable world.

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Learn more about rewilding by reading The Carnivore Way: Coexisting with and Conserving North America’s Predators, and The Wolf’s Tooth: Keystone Predators, Trophic Cascades, and Biodiversity by Dr. Cristina Eisenberg. Learn more about large carnivore ecology by joining Cristina afield on her Earthwatch research expedition, Restoring Fire, Wolves, and Bison to the Canadian Rockies. Learn more about the many ways Earthwatch is helping rewild the world and how researchers and citizen scientists can help by visiting our Website: http://earthwatch.org/

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