Rogue Rewilders: Heroes or Criminals? The Secret Movement Bringing Back Europe's Wildlife
Explore the underground network of wildlife enthusiasts illegally reintroducing beavers, boars, and martens in Europe. Are they criminals or heroes? Discover their impact on ecosystems and the debates they ignite.
In 1998, Olivier Rubbers had a seemingly crazy idea: to bring back beavers to his local rivers in Belgium. Despite his limited knowledge of nature, he was inspired by an article he read about the beaver's native status in Belgium. He embarked on a mission known as "beaver bombing" or "beaver black ops," illegally releasing beavers into waterways and letting them do what they do best: shape ecosystems. Beavers, known as "ecosystem engineers" or "keystone species," create habitats ideal for various wildlife.
Rubbers, along with his accomplices, smuggled beavers from Germany in a van with homemade beaver crates. They released a total of 97 beavers into Belgian rivers between 1999 and 2000, often choosing mid-afternoon on Sundays to avoid attention. Rubbers obtained the beavers from Gerhard Schwab, a Bavarian wildlife manager known as "the Pablo Escobar of beavers." Schwab was unaware that Rubbers was introducing the beavers without proper authorization.
Rubbers faced a 500 euro fine for his actions but believes he did a service to Belgium by bringing back beavers. These industrious creatures transformed the country's waterways, benefiting frogs, fish, bugs, beetles, and birds. Rubbers is just one member of a clandestine network of wildlife enthusiasts engaged in similar activities. There are boar bombers, a butterfly brigade breeding and releasing rare butterfly species, and a group reintroducing the pine marten to British forests.
This underground movement faces criticism from farmers concerned about crop damage and scientists advocating for regulated reintroduction processes. Some view these rogue rewilders as criminals, while others see them as heroes addressing the biodiversity emergency. Beavers, once on the brink of extinction in Europe due to hunting, have made a remarkable comeback, with their population estimated at 1.5 million. Beaver bombers played a role in this recovery.
The rewilding movement gains traction as floods, wildfires, and droughts worsen in the face of the climate crisis. Rewilding offers hope by allowing nature to restore itself. Beavers, in particular, are seen as part of the solution. Their ability to create healthy wetland systems helps sequester carbon, slow down river flow, and mitigate flooding and droughts. Schwab describes beavers as tireless workers who increase groundwater levels and foster biodiversity.
However, skeptics argue that rogue rewilding can lead to conflicts between humans and wildlife, spread diseases, and harm biodiversity by introducing unsuitable species into ecosystems. There are concerns about unqualified individuals with wealth and influence taking charge of restoration projects, potentially exacerbating inequality and sidelining local communities. The emergence of "green lairds" in Scotland, who buy up land for rewilding, has sparked criticism of this top-down approach.
Despite the debates, rewilding initiatives supported by philanthropists and politicians have sprouted across Europe. The movement is driven by a sense of urgency, as political leaders are seen as slow in restoring biodiversity. Maverick rewilders believe that a more radical approach is necessary, challenging cautious and bureaucratic conservation efforts. They argue that the time for slow and careful change has passed, and the fate of the natural world demands immediate action.
One vocal figure in the movement is Derek Gow, who transformed his Devon farm into a rewilding project after witnessing the disappearance of species like the curlew. Gow criticizes those who prioritize caution over meaningful action, emphasizing the urgency of addressing the ongoing ecological collapse. He sees himself as someone concerned about the fate of the natural world in a time of extinction crisis, refusing to be labeled as just a beaver-bomber or rogue rewilder.
Rewilding projects, however, have their limits. Critics warn against false promises, highlighting that species reintroduction alone cannot solve the planet's problems. Some scientists argue that rewilding projects need to be implemented carefully and with evidence-based conservation methods. They believe that focusing on urgent systemic change is necessary, rather than relying solely on reintroducing keystone species.
The rewilding movement faces challenges and controversies, from conflicts with farmers to the debate over who should lead restoration efforts. The tension between radical action and cautious conservation approaches continues. Ultimately, finding a balance that combines urgent action with careful planning and collaboration with local communities is crucial to effectively address the biodiversity and climate crises we face.