What is rewilding?

Recognizing that there might be differences in how ‘rewilding’ is defined and practiced in different places across the world, in 2015 we published a working definition for ‘rewilding’ that we believe is particularly suited to Europe’s history and culture, and the condition of European landscapes. A number of important clarifications further define rewilding with regard to the European situation. We will use this definition for the vision and work of Rewilding Europe and encourage other organisations and initiatives to adopt it as much as possible.

Rewilding ensures natural processes and wild species to play a much more prominent role in the land- and seascapes, meaning that after initial support, nature is allowed to take more care of itself. Rewilding helps landscapes become wilder, whilst also providing opportunities for modern society to reconnect with such wilder places for the benefit of all life.

Rewilding represents a new appreciation of wilder landscapes, in which people understand the interdependent relationship between the health of wild nature and the health of human society, and act to strengthen this indispensable relationship.

Rewilding creates a new understanding that life-supporting European biodiversity is fundamentally important, and is best derived from natural processes and the habitats that are the result of those processes.

Rewilding can occur in all types of terrestrial and marine environment, on both a small and large scale. While formal protected status for such environments is not essential, some form of protection is often desirable to ensure the full and continued success of the rewilding process.

In Europe, even our wildest landscapes are missing certain key natural processes and/or species, making even these areas important and “qualified” for rewilding.

Rewilding is future-oriented, and works towards the return of natural processes and wildlife within our modern social context, creating new opportunities to link human activities to such wilder, natural landscapes.

Rewilding often requires initial supportive measures, to re-establish natural processes, or to help restore wildlife populations to more natural levels. From the point of initial intervention, however, the goal is always to reduce the level of intervention going forward.

Rewilding is a relative and progressive process, where the goal is to move up a scale of wildness within the constraints of what is possible.

Rewilding is not geared toward reaching any specific, human-defined ‘optimal situation’ or end state, or to only create ‘wilderness’, but is instead meant to support more natural dynamics that will result in landscapes, habitats and species interacting with each other in each particular place, and interacting with local cultural identities.

Reintroductions and population reinforcements of flora and fauna are meant to restore ecosystem functions and processes, but in a historically indigenous range of species.

To restore ecosystem functions and natural processes, working with ‘ecological replacements’ (of extinct species) is also an option (cf. IUCN). However, the main focus will remain on native species, including those that may be extinct in the local area.

Europe is changing

Nature in Europe is in a state of dramatic change. On the one hand, biodiversity is still declining, but on the other hand there is an impressive wildlife comeback going on. Because of huge socio-economic and lifestyle changes there is a wide and increasing land abandonment. At the same time there is a strong growth within nature-based tourism. On top of that, European policy is shifting towards a more positive attitude to wilderness, wildlife and rewilding. We believe these facts offer opportunities for wild nature in Europe that are bigger than for centuries.

Every period in time brings with it opportunities and challenges. The 21st century Europe is no different. We are exposed to economic downturn, social conflict, a continued loss of biodiversity and natural disasters increasingly associated with climate change.

A few trends are particularly relevant for nature and these were the main reasons for starting Rewilding Europe as a new initiative:

Urbanisation and land abandonment leading to depopulation of rural areas in Europe.

Something that is taking place both in agricultural and in forested areas. These sociocultural and economic problems could be turned into new opportunities.

A substantial comeback of a number of iconic and keystone wildlife species.

This offers great opportunities for Europeans to enjoy and benefit from this wildlife comeback.

An increasing demand for experiencing all kinds of wild nature and seeing its wildlife.

Connected to an increasing tolerance from people towards wild beings. This is one of the main reasons for the wildlife comeback, which in its turn also provides the possible base for a number of wildlife-related tourism products.

An increasingly favorable European policy towards wildlife, wilderness and rewilding.

Especially related to the recently approved wilderness resolution by the European Parliament, the EU Commission’s new biodiversity strategy for Europe and the Natura 2000 Network.

Can we bring the biodiversity decline in Europe to a halt, produce an additional kind of nature conservation that costs less and delivers more new economic value, lets wild species and habitats come back, and better safeguards our shared natural heritage for the future?

We believe there is a way, and we intend to explore and find that way, together with as many like-minded partners as possible. If there is a will, there is a way to reconnect people with nature, and a way to combine that with economic development in countryside Europe.

We call this way rewilding. Rewilding of areas, habitats, species and minds.

Making Europe a Wilder Place.

Our mission

Rewilding Rhodopes Foundation is a Bulgarian Foundation, aiming at the greener future for the Rhodopes. The main objective is to develop sustainable initiatives which promote and combine nature conservation, green business and education. We work for the promotion of the natural grazing, rewilding and restoration of the essential ecological processes in the Rhodopes. Short term initiatives emphasize the key role for natural grazing and reintroduction of native, wild herbivores. The unique biodiversity of the Rhodopes must remain for the future generations and raising awareness and involvement of local people has highest priority. The beauty and grandeur of the landscape and nature create the green gold for ecotourism. Restoration and sustainable conservation of the unique wildlife of Rhodopes provides a basis for development of a greener rewilding economy in the region.

Rewilding Rhodopes wants to make Bulgaria a wilder place, with much more space for wildlife, wilderness and natural processes. Bringing back the variety of life for us all to enjoy and exploring new ways for people to earn a fair living from the wild.

How do we want to achieve this?

Rewilding Rhodopes brings a new conservation vision for Bulgaria, with wild nature and natural processes as its key elements, where rewilding is applicable to any type of landscape or level of protection. Treating nature as something that is fully capable of taking care of itself, if given the opportunity to do so. This concept could become the main management principle for many natural areas in the future. Just let nature take care of itself.

Rewilding Rhodopes is working to allow natural processes to play a vital role in shaping our landscapes and ecosystems. Among such natural processes are natural grazing (the role of herbivores of all kinds in creating vegetation dynamics), predation (the impact of carnivores on their prey species and thereby the vegetation), the role of scavenging, weather conditions, and many others.

Rewilding Rhodopes particularly focuses on turning the problems caused by the on-going, large-scale land abandonment into opportunities for man and nature. Providing a viable business case for wild nature in Bulgaria. Several areas have the potential to become world-class nature tourism attractions, alongside the many other ways of reaping economic benefits from the wild.

Rewilding Rhodopes aims to rewild at least one thousand square kilometres of land by 2022, creating magnificent wildlife and wilderness areas of international quality, that become the base for a new competitive, sustainable rural economy in these areas. Serving as inspirational examples for what can also be achieved elsewhere.

Rewilding Rhodopes recognizes natural grazing as one of the key ecological factors for naturally open and half-open landscapes, upon which a large part of Bulgaria’s biodiversity is dependent. We are working to allow our native herbivores to return again in significant, more natural numbers to the lands where they once belonged and where they can again play their ecological role.

Rewilding Rhodopes recognizes the crucially important ecological role of the large carnivores, as well as that of the smaller predators, the raptors and the scavengers. The brown bear, the wolf, the Eurasian lynx and many other carnivores are necessary for the natural functioning of the ecosystems they live in.

Rewilding Rhodopes emphasizes the joy and the value of wildness, and takes active part in a strong communication on everything from local to an international level. This in order to stimulate a greater sense of pride in the wild and to spread a vision of a wilder continent. By using a broad range of communication tools and partnerships to promote our natural heritage and showcase the opportunities for rewilding to many millions of Europeans.

Rewilding Rhodopes recognises the crucial importance of  local participation and  their support. Rewilding Rhodopes will work on  the understanding and acceptance of rewilding activities, local commitment and even that local people become proud of the RE taking place in their region by inviting the local people and stakeholders in working together

We invite all strands of society to be part of this exciting and ground-breaking initiative.

Our vision

”Wild nature is recognised as an important and fundamental part of Europe’s natural and cultural heritage and is an essential element of a modern, prosperous, and healthy European society”

Making it real

The rewilding actions have already started up here, through a Dutch-Bulgarian project called “New Thracian Gold”, which worked in the Eastern Rhodopes (2009 – 2014). That project also helped upgrade the conservation work in the area which had already been built up by the Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds, BSPB.

These four priority areas will serve as inspiration for rewilding at the larger scale: Madzharovo, Byala Reka, Studen Kladenets and Chernoochene. In these core areas, non-intervention management and giving space to natural processes are pioneered towards a more natural landscape.

  • Old-growth forests are being mapped and work being done for their protection status to be enhanced
  • We are involved in helping the Natura 2000 institutions with the Management planning process of Natura 2000 sites here
  • Work is done for changes in policy providing compensation schemes for wildlife damage, especially that by the wolf
  • Major threats to the rewilding area are being monitored and countered, in particular large infrastructure projects like hydropower dams, wind parks, high capacity power lines and the like.
  • Large no-take zones/”wildlife experience zones” are being negotiated by working with national and regional institutions, as well as with the hunters’ associations, with the goal to increase the natural wildlife populations and provide good conditions for reproduction and wildlife watching under undisturbed conditions.
  • Creating viable, free-roaming populations of fallow deer and red deer in collaboration with the hunting community will rapidly increase the numbers of these key-stone herbivores. We are continuing the already started re-stocking of these species.
  • Supporting the comeback of the black vulture and substantially improving the conditions for the griffon vulture and the Egyptian vulture.
  • A key factor in this is the work reducing the threat of deliberate wildlife poisoning and poaching, by carrying out an effective anti-poisoning and anti-poaching strategy in collaboration with the local communities.
  • Conserve and increase the endangered populations of the souslik (or European ground squirrel) and start up reintroductions where appropriate, which will also benefit globally threatened species like the Eastern Imperial eagle and the marbled polecat.
  • Natural grazing with free-living herds of horses is taking place in a couple of areas in order to see if the open habitats will remain open when there are natural numbers of the natural, native herbivore species present.
  • The wolf shall be allowed to play its important ecological role in the rewilding area, also benefiting the local economy in new ways.
  • Promoting the natural comeback of the brown bear to the area, coming in from the neighbouring Western Rhodopes, which has the largest Bulgarian bear population.

Enterprise development

  •  A network of wildlife watching hides shall soon be operative in the rewilding area, taking advantage of the presence of fallow deer, red deer, wolf, souslik, brown bear and several vulture and raptor species.
  • New and existing lodging opportunities are being supported and tourism packages for wildlife enthusiasts are being prepared and marketed as well as local rewilding-related products.
  • Innovative approaches on hunting are developed.

Communication and marketing

  • Work to increase knowledge and pride in the Rhodope Mountains rewilding area and its nature and wildlife, both at the local and national levels.
  • New business opportunities are being created in the area through the wildlife comeback and the reintroductions of large herbivores.
  • Success stories for local businesses are used to show and build the potential for further local economic development in the area.
  • The Rhodope Mountains are now being put on the European map, making it a well-known rewilding area and nature tourism destination.
  • The Rhodope Mountains are already actively present in the Rewilding Europe Travel Club.