How restoring key wildlife species can be a game-changing climate solution

School of big eye swimming in the waters of Sipadan, Malaysia. Photo | Dreamstime 9492119

How restoring key wildlife species can be a game-changing climate solution

Exciting news for anyone concerned about climate change and the loss of wildlife: a new scientific paper shows that protecting and reintroducing certain species could be the key to solving both problems at once.

Co-authored by 15 scientists from eight countries, the paper, titled Trophic rewilding can expand natural climate solutions, outlines how protecting and restoring key species can "supercharge" ecosystem carbon sinks. 

The paper shows that restoring populations of just three wildlife species —baleen whales, African forest elephants, and American bison —can lead to additional carbon sequestration of 0.6 GtCO2 per year and more than 40 GtCO2 in total carbon removal by 2100.

In addition, the paper establishes the critical role of marine fish and five key species in the global carbon cycle, contributing towards a whopping 5.8 GtCO2 in annual carbon absorption per year.

Conservation of their habitats is essential, as the disappearance of these species could cause ecosystems to turn from carbon sinks to carbon sources.

The paper compiled literature on the interplay between keystone species and several ecosystem processes that enhance carbon sequestration and storage across 16 biomes -- plant foraging, predation, trampling/disturbance, soil carbon input, nutrient inputs, and seed dispersal.

Wild animal species are critical to controlling the carbon cycle in many ecosystems on land, in freshwater, and in oceans. Wildlife keeps ecosystems healthy and functioning through foraging, nutrient deposition, disturbance, organic carbon deposition, and seed dispersal. Healthy ecosystems, in turn, pull more carbon out of the atmosphere and store it. 

Trophic rewilding, a key process to assist in Animating the Carbon Cycle (ACC), focuses on the reintroduction of key species to restore top-down interactions within ecosystems. It involves letting wild animals play their critical ecological role in the food web in order to restore ecosystem health, diversity, and functionality.

However, trophic rewilding as a climate solution cannot occur in a bubble. A commitment to ramp up the renewable energy transition, end deforestation, and halt land degradation, combined with a genuine and urgent investment in trophic rewilding, can help stave off the worst effects of climate change.

Unlocking the potential of trophic rewilding requires a new conservation focus on dynamic landscapes and seascapes that enable wild animal species to reach meaningful densities. The paper demonstrates the value of protecting Earth's remaining wildlands while helping degraded ecosystems return to full health through trophic rewilding at scale.

Wildebeest herding and following a few leading zebra in the Masai Mara, Kenya. Image credit: T R Shankar Raman, Creative Commons

The ACC concept is not restricted to wildlands; it can also take into account the human population. Hundreds of initiatives that are part of the Global Rewilding Alliance are working closely with local communities worldwide to enhance their livelihoods through rewilding, building on local cultural heritage and ancestral knowledge, and creating novel forms of land tenure.

Protecting and restoring wildlife can restore ecosystems, rebalance our global climate system, and create a healthier, more diverse planet where people and nature thrive together.

Read the Full Paper
    • Fifteen scientists from eight countries contributed to the report. The paper’s authors are: Oswald J. Schmitz, Yale University; Magnus Sylven, Wild Foundation; Trisha B. Atwood, Utah State University; Elisabeth S. Bakker, Netherlands Institute of Ecology; Fabio Berzaghi, World Maritime University; Jedediah F. Brodie, University of Montana, Missoula; Joris P.G.M. Cromsigt, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences; Andrew B. Davies, Harvard University; Shawn J. Leroux, Memorial University of Newfoundland; Frans J. Schepers, Rewilding Europe; Felisa A. Smith, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque; Sari Stark, University of Lapland; Jens-Christian Svenning, Aarhus University; Andrew Tilker, Re:wild; Henni Ylänne, University of Eastern Finland.

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