Protecting and enhancing wildlife populations could be a global warming game changer

Mar 27, 2023

New science published today reveals that protecting and enhancing the populations of even a limited number of wildlife species could help to keep rising global temperatures below the critical 1.5°C threshold, while simultaneously reversing biodiversity decline and offering multiple other co-benefits.

Protecting and enhancing populations of key wildlife species across the world could significantly enhance natural carbon capture and storage and play a critical role mitigating climate change. These are the findings of a new paper published today in the leading journal Nature Climate Change.

The paper, which is co-authored by 15 scientists from eight countries, outlines how the restoration of such populations would “supercharge” ecosystem carbon sinks, thereby helping to keep rising global temperatures below the critical 1.5°C threshold. The authors call for the restoration of animal populations to be included in the scope of nature-based climate solutions (solutions which help nature to lock up carbon).

The findings of the new paper demonstrate the value and urgent need of not only protecting the functional wild nature we have left, but enabling degraded ecosystems to return to full health through trophic rewilding at scale. Rewilding animal populations to enhance natural carbon capture and storage, which is known more popularly as “Animating the carbon cycle” (ACC), is probably the best nature-based climate solution available to mankind.

“Climate change is usually only seen as one of a number of threats to wildlife species,” said Andrew Tilker, Re:wild species conservation coordinator and co-author of the paper. “What we have found, however, is that the conservation of wildlife – allowing species to play their functional roles in ecosystems – offers untapped potential as a solution to climate change. A genuine and urgent investment in species rewilding, combined with efforts to halt deforestation and rewild those degraded wildlands in addition to transitioning to renewable energy, is enough to stave off the worsening effects of climate change.”

Wild animal populations play a critical role controlling the carbon cycle in terrestrial, freshwater, and marine ecosystems through a wide range of processes. The new paper presents data which shows that protecting or restoring populations of nine wildlife species (or groups of species) – marine fish, whales, sharks, grey wolf, wildebeest, sea otter, musk ox, African forest elephants, and American bison – could collectively facilitate the additional capture of 6.41 billion tons of carbon dioxide (GtCO2) annually. This is more than 95% of the amount needed every year (6.5 GtCO2) to meet the global target of removing 500 GtCO2 from the atmosphere by 2100, which would keep global warming below the 1.5°C threshold.

Animating the carbon cycle effectively will require a transition away from a static understanding of conservation and nature-based climate solutions (such as forest plantations) towards dynamic landscapes and seascapes. This would enable wild animal species to reach meaningful densities through trophic rewilding.

“Allowing key animal species to reach ecologically meaningful densities as part of dynamic landscapes and seascapes would probably shorten the time taken to reach the 500 GtCO2 target,” says the Yale School of the Environment’s Professor Oswald Schmitz, lead author of the paper.

The nine wildlife species (or groups of species) considered in the paper have average lifespans of between 20 and 200 years. Focusing on the protection and restoration of such long-lived species would be advantageous because it would ensure very significant carbon net contributions until the end of the century. Conversely, if these species were to disappear, the ecosystems they inhabit could flip from being carbon sinks to carbon sources.

It is also essential to look at ecosystems and animal species beyond forests, which only cover 9% of the Earth’s surface. The species covered in the new paper are only the tip of the ACC “iceberg” – there are many more candidate species across the world, including the African buffalo, white rhino, puma, dingo, Old and New World primates, hornbills, fruit bats, harbour and grey seals, and loggerhead and green turtles. While human activity has negatively impacted the populations of many of these species, these would recover rapidly under the right conditions.

“Taking advantage of this vast potential will require a change in mindset within science and policy,” says Frans Schepers, Managing Director of Rewilding Europe and a co-author of the paper. “We need to act fast because we are losing populations of many animal species at the very time that we are discovering the degree to which their role in ecosystems can enable carbon capture and storage. As has been demonstrated in Europe and North America, many of these species will come back if we allow them to.”

Animating the carbon cycle need not be restricted to protected areas or the most intact parts of the world’s natural areas, either. It can also work in areas with human populations too. Hundreds of initiatives within the Global Rewilding Alliance are working closely with local populations across the world to help them enhance their livelihoods through rewilding, building on local cultural heritage and ancestral knowledge, and creating novel forms of land tenure.

“Taking key wildlife species and the potentially game-changing impact of ACC into account, the time has come for a paradigm shift in how we mobilise nature for the benefit of climate and society,” says Dr Magnus Sylvén, Director of Science-Policy-Practice at the Global Rewilding Alliance and co-author of the paper. “This approach will also help to strengthen functioning of nature, secure other ecosystem services such as fire, flood and drought prevention, and help to meet political commitments when it comes to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the newly agreed UN High Seas Treaty, and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).”

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Notes for Editors


The following fifteen scientists co-authored the new paper.

Oswald J. Schmitz, Yale School of the Environment, USA
Magnus Sylvén, Wild Foundation and Global Rewilding Alliance; USA & Switzerland
Trisha B. Atwood, Utah State University, USA
Elisabeth S. Bakker, NIOO-KNAP and Wageningen University, the Netherlands
Fabio Berzaghi, World Maritime University, Sweden
Jedediah F. Brodie, University of Montana, Missoula, USA
Joris P.G.M. Cromsigt, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Sweden
Andrew B. Davies, Harvard University, USA
Shawn J. Leroux, Memorial University of Newfoundland; Canada
Frans J. Schepers, Rewilding Europe, the Netherlands
Felisa A. Smith, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, USA
Sari Stark, University of Lapland, Finland
Jens-Christian Svenning, Aarhus University, Denmark
Andrew Tilker, Re:wild, USA & Germany
Henni Ylänne, University of Eastern Finland, Finland

The publication was supported by:

The Wild Foundation, Re:wild, One Earth & Rewilding Europe

The Global Rewilding Alliance

Anchored in the Global Charter for Rewilding the Earth: Advancing nature-based solutions to the extinction and climate crises, the Global Rewilding Alliance was founded by The Wild Foundation and Re:wild in 2020.

The Alliance is a network of currently 130+ organisations working across Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, Latin America, North America and globally to rewild more than 100 million hectares of land and sea in 90+ countries.

Our goal for 2030 is that rewilding has become mainstream in science, policy and practice and is recognised globally as being credible, practical and inspiring: a key approach for people, nature and climate.

Contact Magnus Sylvén: / + 41 78 629 75 11