A couple of weeks ago, I returned from a university field trip to South Africa (yes, they do field trips to Africa now. They’ve got to justify that nine grand somehow.) It was difficult to believe it was all a part of a module that I’ll have to sit an exam for come May. Among the research practicals and assessed discussions, it was an indulgence of abundant and unusual wildlife. On top of the ever-impressive elephants (still a favourite since childhood), black rhinos, lions and buffalo, there were the curious looking bontebok antelope with their gaunt, badger-striped faces; the barking cacophony and merlot-red wing flashes of the Knysna turaco; the most perseverant work efforts I’ve ever seen from an animal in the unique flightless dung beetles; the almost Godzilla like revelation of size when I saw my first giant kingfisher (as big as a crow); and many, many more.
But beyond the plain childhood excitement of just seeing these animals, the serious conservationist in me was intrigued to get over to this country in order to see their unique way of providing space for a large human population alongside a vast suite of wildlife, that includes numbers of megafauna that would’ve been wiped out thousands of years ago in most parts of the world.
Saying that though, in a depressingly familiar tale, most of South Africa’s large animals were wiped out upon the arrival of the European settlers. You know all about the Serengeti wildebeest migration, but did you know similar numbers of zebra, black wildebeest and bluebuck (now extinct) used to do the same down there? Just one spectacle never to be seen again thanks to Homo sapiens.
Today, the majority of elephants, large ungulates and top predators you see will be behind a fence, at places such as Addo elephant national park, one of the stops on my visit there. That’s not to say Addo is anything like a zoo: At 1,640 square km, it’s the country’s third largest national park and hosts a dynamic, fully-functioning ecosystem. It just happens that the 660 odd elephants and their smaller, yet still pretty bulky neighbours can’t step outside the boundary.
To many, this appears a paradoxical anathema to the ideals of conservation. But in this day and age, is it really a bad thing? In Africa, it’s often a case of wildlife or people, and the consequences where conflict is at its peak aren’t pretty. To ensure it has a future requires pragmatism rather than a Disney filmmaker, and (to paraphrase the great Professor Carl Jones) if wildlife is being acted upon by natural selection and the organisms are fulfilling their appropriate ecological niches, does a more hands-on approach to management really negate its ‘wildness’?
This technique has paid off for South Africa’s megafauna. So with all the talk of rewilding in the UK frequently hosting a wolf at the door, if we wish to reintroduce our own lost big beasts here, perhaps the Saffa model would be a good start.
Of course, to those who follow the rewilding world to a degree of even mild interest, there’s probably one particular place that comes to mind, and they happen to be trying to do exactly what I’m talking about – Alladale, the dream ‘wilderness reserve’ of millionaire Paul Lister. For those scratching their heads, Lister’s plan for his 23,000-acre plot of land in the highlands is to persuade neighbouring landowners to increase the size of the reserve to 50,000 acres, stick an electric fence around it, and populate it with wolves, bears, moose, bison et al, bringing back the Scottish countryside as it would be if we hadn’t created such a mess.
Like many, I’ve largely been sceptical of his methods: But I think this was largely due to the word ‘fence’. Since South Africa however, I’m beginning to see more where he’s getting at. Don’t get me wrong; ultimately I would love any reintroduced megafauna to be able to roam without a blockade. But we live in a world where French sheep farmers threw their dead stock on the streets of Paris and held the environment minister hostage in response to the return of wolves. Whatever some conservationists might tell you, the argument that those on the continent all live alongside large, conflict-stirring mammals just fine is completely false.
Equally, they might say that there is plenty of space in the highlands for large predators as it is. That might be the case, but in a couple of generations those wolves and bears will be crossing the border into England. Would those living on the land there be quite as tolerant? If we were to seriously consider reintroductions such as these in Britain, you would have to do it in baby-steps.
The obvious barrier to the South Africa/Lister model, which the latter has already endured plenty of headaches about, is that current law simply wouldn’t allow this method. The Scottish Land Reform Act of 2003 gives everyone the right to roam the land as they please, and as a result walkers make up the majority of Lister’s enemies. Under current legislation, a wilderness reserve would require a zoo licence, which then requires predators are not kept alongside prey, and so on in a circle of impracticality.
Whether Lister’s dream will be realised as he wants it is unknown, and one could say unlikely. But if by some miracle the government, working alongside the relevant and respectful landowners and conservation organisations, were willing to do something really Earth-shattering for nature, maybe Scottish ‘game reserves’ could be the way. For those who dream of wolves howling across the glens while moose wallow in the peat bogs, fenced reserves may be the safest way to ensure these in the present circumstances. But while a change in legislation is the obvious first barrier that would have to be broken down, the second is far more complex – whether we’re willing to change what we perceive as wild.