On Foreign Correspondent this week Barbara Miller reports on “Wild Things” as endangered animals are being reintroduced to wild places as part of a radical and controversial idea called “re-wilding”.
Creatures great and small are returning to the wilder reaches of Europe, centuries after they were hunted to extinction or driven from their natural homes.
Some are brought back by human hand; others make their own way back as original habitats are restored.
It’s known as re-wilding, a push-back by scientists and conservationists against a creeping loss of biodiversity.
“It’ll be like the dodo, it’ll be gone,” warns scientist and wildlife warrior Dr Paul O’Donoghue, whose mission is to rescue the critically endangered Scottish wildcat.
Reporter Barbara Miller joins Dr O’Donoghue on a search for the wildcat – so elusive it’s called the “ghost cat” – in the dramatic scenery of the Scottish highlands. Thousands once thrived in the UK. Now there are about 50, a population smashed by past hunting and interbreeding with feral cats.
“This is our secret weapon,” says Dr O’Donoghue, as he sets baits of stinking, oily, tinned mackerel to lure wildcats to his camera traps. His dream is to create a vast reserve starting with at least 250 wildcats.
Most locals back his wildcat aspiration, but his next project – taking bigger, fiercer lynx from the wild in Romania and freeing them in England’s north – is hitting opposition.
It was 1300 years ago – around when the Vikings first invaded Britain – that lynx last lived there. But Dr O’Donoghue insists that the transplanted lynx will adapt quickly, while keeping fox and deer numbers down in “an ecology of fear”, and have minimal impact on farmers.
But for O’Donoghue’s local adversary, sheep farmer Greg Dalton, there’s no going back.
“No one is going to be putting up with sheep being eaten by a lynx,” he says. “They will get to a point where they will sell up and move away and the land will be left for the mess of re-wilding – god knows what it will end up looking like.”
Farmer Dalton calls the re-wilding push “slightly delusional”. Surprisingly it’s a sentiment shared by re-wilder O’Donoghue about the most ambitious re-wilding plan afoot – bringing elephants to Denmark.
“I think that’s a ridiculous idea,” says O’Donoghue, arguing that it will bring re-wilding into disrepute. Yet proponents include respected scientists who note that elephants were in Europe for millions of years before disappearing relatively recently, about 12,000 years ago.
To these re-wilders, Europe is an ark for threatened elephants in Asia and Africa – and there’s a moral imperative to act.
“We’re really seeing massive losses of biodiversity at the moment and it we look to the future we see dark skies,” says Danish ecology professor Jens-Christian Svenning. “It’s an obligation for scientists to work on helping us to overcome this.”
If Professor Svenning is right, we could see elephant herds grazing the wilds of Denmark within a decade.
9.30pm on Tuesday September 20 on ABC.