The contemporary ‘rewilding’ movement as manifested in organisations like Rewilding Europe promotes wildlife tourism as an economic benefit for local communities. The newest Rewilding Europe target area, Rewilding Lapland, has also adopted this emphasis on wildlife watching as an alternative to other disruptive uses of the land such as intensive forestry, mining, and green energy developments which are competing economic interests in the area.
As a historian, I look for historical parallels or (although I know many historians shutter at the idea) historical lessons that might shed light on potential hidden problems with contemporary developments. So when I was asked to participate in a seminar about rewilding and tourism at Dalarna University’s Tourism Studies group last week, I decided to offer up a historical case of when ‘rewilding’ tourism (even if it wasn’t called rewilding back then) conflicted with local inhabitants. Håkan Landström of Rewilding Lapland was there to talk about his plans to get the rewilding activities up and running.
I talked about the Norwegian muskox herd that has become a tourist icon in the Dovre mountains and Dovre National Park with signs and toys and muskox safaris. On the surface, everything would seem great with these reintroduced animals that have built up a whole tourist industry around themselves.
But below the surface I’ve found a history of local inhabitants who did not want muskox there. They were scared to go hiking, had to run up trees to avoid charging animals, and one local man was killed. Numerous newspaper articles over the years reveal that muskoxen ended up going into towns and either had to be shooed away or shot. The upshot of all that is that a multi-community muskox management plan had to be created in order to make sure that these wild animals stay inside the lines of the allowable area (or are killed).
So while rewilding proponents keep talking about how we need to ‘give nature some more space’ (Landström of Rewilding Lapland said this in his talk) or E. O. Wilson lauches his idea to ‘devote half the surface of the Earth to nature’, they often overlook that people actually inhabit and/or use those spaces. People who live and work in rural areas generally don’t want predators or large dangerous animals in places where they might come in contact with them. Sure, a tourist will think it’s great to go on a wildlife safari in the north to see muskox or bear or lynx, but they don’t have to live there all the time. Not everybody wants to work in tourism–some people honestly want to be farmers. And that doesn’t mean that they are not ‘civilised’. Rewilders need to take seriously local residents’ concerns or they risk creating colonial hierarchies in which the rural/local/peripheral are ‘sacrificed’ on behalf of the urban/distant/center.
This doesn’t mean that rewilding initatives are impossible. But they better start listening to more voices if we are going to get this party started.