Let­ting na­ture do the work no walk in the park

The Pak Banker - - FRONT PAGE - VÉRONNE -AFP

The chirp of ci­cadas rip­ples through the pine for­est, car­ried along on the same breeze as the scent of laven­der and wild thymewith nearly no trace of man.

The Grand Barry na­ture re­serve in France's south­east­ern cor­ner is un­der­tak­ing one of Europe's largest ex­per­i­ments in rewil­d­ing.

At a time when re­for­esta­tion projects-plant­ing new trees-are grow­ing in pop­u­lar­ity, rewil­d­ing aims to let na­ture do the work by sim­ply leav­ing ecosys­tems alone to re­cover, free from hu­man in­flu­ence.

Ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tion's bio­di­ver­sity panel IPBES, at least three-quar­ters of all land on Earth has been de­graded by hu­man ac­tiv­ity.

As hu­mankind's in­sa­tiable de­mand for food and ma­te­ri­als ex­pands, more than one mil­lion species of wild an­i­mals and plants are at risk of ex­tinc­tion, many within decades, the UN says.

In­spired by sim­i­lar move­ments in the United States, the Grand Barry project is over­seen by the As­so­ci­a­tion for the Pro­tec­tion of Wild An­i­mals (ASPAS) and aims to give the for­est some breath­ing space.

"On Earth, there are hardly any places which have not been in­flu­enced by hu­mans, one way or the other," says Zoltan Kun, from the Frank­furt Zoo­log­i­cal So­ci­ety.

The sit­u­a­tion is par­tic­u­larly acute in Europe, where a rel­a­tive lack of space and large pop­u­la­tion cen­tres mean ar­eas of un­touched na­ture are in­creas­ingly hard to find.

Kun says that the goal of rewil­d­ing is to cre­ate "ecosys­tems that can work with­out hu­man in­ter­ven­tion". This means no treeplant­ing, no forestry clear­ance, and no or very lit­tle species rein­tro­duc­tion. Just stand­ing back, and let­ting na­ture do its thing.

The process starts from the bot­tom of the food chain: al­low­ing the pop­u­la­tions of in­sects and small crea­tures to grow again will, in turn, in­crease the num­bers of her­bi­vores, car­ni­vores and birds of prey within the for­est.

"In most cases you just need to al­low these species to ex­tend nat­u­rally," says Hen­rique Miguel Pereira, IPBES's head of bio­di­ver­sity con­ser­va­tion.

"(It's about) pro­mot­ing the con­nec­tiv­ity of ecosys­tems-if you have pop­u­la­tions of wolves in dif­fer­ent ar­eas, for ex­am­ple, they can ex­pand if they are con­nected." This in­volves ev­ery­thing from re­mov­ing small dams on rivers, to iden­ti­fy­ing and creat­ing safe pas­sages for wildlife to cross over or un­der roads.

The wooded mas­sif of Grand Barry, spread across 100 hectares (247 acres) of France's Drome re­gion, is shot through with a kilo­me­tres-long rocky ridge.

The for­est floor all around rus­tles to the sound of chamois-think deer crossed with an­te­lope-red deer, stoats, bad­gers, rep­tiles, not to men­tion count­less species of plants and flow­ers.

In the sky above, a golden ea­gle darts through the air like a fighter jet, shar­ing flight paths with the pere­grine fal­con and the Euro­pean hawk.

"It's just an area of pretty nor­mal na­ture, but there are some nuggets," says Cle­ment Roche, co­or­di­na­tor of ASPAS re­serve.

Golden ea­gles-once abun­dant in Europe-now num­ber only a few thou­sand pairs across the con­ti­nent. The area is highly pro­tected-banned ac­tiv­i­ties in­clude fish­ing, hunt­ing, log­ging, farm­ing, large gath­er­ings and the use of mo­tor ve­hi­cles.

Such safe­guards put the re­serve on a par with the high­est pro­tected sta­tus granted by the In­ter­na­tional Union for Con­ser­va­tion of Na­ture's (IUCN) cri­te­ri­ahigher than that of na­tional park. "We let peo­ple hike here on the marked paths," says Roche, ges­tur­ing to sign­posts marked dis­creetly among the trees.

"Peo­ple can pass through with­out leav­ing a trace." In re­al­ity, just a few dozen hik­ers visit the re­serve an­nu­ally, a fig­ure kept down thanks to its de­lib­er­ately low-key com­mu­ni­ca­tion strat­egy.

Flora here is left to its own de­vices. "When a tree falls, we leave it," says Roche, point­ing to a top­pled trunk that it­self will be­come teem­ing with plant, an­i­mal life as it de­com­poses.

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