Wilderness evolution: a mechanism for protecting biodiversity
With 195 states committing to taking ‘urgent action’ at the Montreal COP15, the desire to prioritise the protection of biodiversity has never been stronger. In this context and with climate change taking hold, the concept of wilderness evolution has a lot to offer. This idea, underpinned by the objective of leaving natural areas and processes undisturbed, invites us to change our perspective on our relationship with the wild.
A massive decline in biodiversity
An unprecedented global reality
In its 2019 report, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) sounded the alarm, stating that “nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history and the rate of species extinctions is accelerating, with grave impacts on people around the world now likely.” According to the report, one million animal and plant species are currently threatened with extinction, particularly over the next few decades. Without restorative work, more than 500,000 land-based species from among the estimated 5.9 million in existence would no longer have access to the natural habitat they need for their long-term survival. Sadly, this finding is without precedent.
Equally worrying threats in France
Although France is Europe’s largest biodiversity reserve, a similar picture is emerging there. The threats to its ecosystems are significant and include increasingly artificial soils and the fragmentation of natural environments; an excessive use of resources; air, water and soil pollution; the massive use of pesticides in agriculture; hunting; the exploitation of forests; waterways redirected to human ends; and drained wetlands. According to the 2022 Red List of Threatened Species, France is among the top ten countries with the largest proportion of affected species. Similarly, 68% of endangered habitats in Europe are located in mainland France.
Taking urgent action to protect biodiversity
Extreme heat events and droughts, particularly since 2018, have highlighted the vulnerability of many tree species that are non-native or are unsuited or sensitive to climate change. According to France’s Office National des Forêts, more than 300,000 hectares of French public forests are affected. This equates to “approximately 30 times the surface area of Paris”.
At a time when 30% of our forests are already weakened or threatened by climate change, the summer of 2022 was once again marked by catastrophic fires. These increasingly destructive blazes are ravaging forests exponentially. In the last 40 years, the three largest fires (which saw more than 5,000 hectares go up in smoke) occurred in 2021 and 2022, and the area burned last year (61,921 hectares) is seven times larger than the area burned between 2006 and 2021 (9,117 hectares on average).
Another impact of this exceptionally hot and dry climate is the development of pest insects, particularly bark beetles that feed on the wood and sap of spruce trees. They are especially prevalent in the forests of the ‘Grand Est’ north-eastern region of France, but the epidemic continues to spread to almost all the spruce forests in the northern half of the country. At the end of September 2022, the Food, Agriculture and Forestry Department for Bourgogne–Franche-Comté announced that 8 million m³ of wood had been infected since September 2018 across the region, adding that the epidemic would very likely continue to spread until at least mid-2023.
In this context of ecological crisis, initiatives to protect and restore natural environments, although essential, are unfortunately no longer enough.
Making an essential stand
The scale and speed of global changes are accelerating new initiatives. The COP15 in Montreal enabled the international community to agree on a goal of saving and protecting at least 30% of the planet by 2030. To this end, France has adopted a national strategy that aims to reduce pressures on biodiversity, protect and restore ecosystems, and foster profound change by 2030. The French government has committed to creating protected areas across 30% of its land and maritime spaces, with 10% identified as being under particularly strong safeguards (compared with just 1.8% today).
This enhanced protection strategy primarily targets special environments that are highly biodiverse or particularly vulnerable to future changes. The measures notably include wilderness evolution, an emerging concept that is gaining traction in natural environment management strategies at both national and European levels.
Wilderness evolution: leaving the natural world undisturbed
Allowing natural areas to evolve freely
The concept of wilderness evolution (which is similar to the idea of letting nature run its course without human interference) is a particularly interesting mechanism for allowing nature to develop at will and regain its rightful place under favourable conditions. The term ‘wilderness’ is defined by the NGO Wild Europe as an area governed by natural processes that is either unmodified or only slightly modified and without intrusive or extractive human activity, settlements, infrastructure or visual disturbance. It is a way of managing natural environments that limits human intervention to the absolute minimum in the interests of wildlife. According to biologists, these truly natural spaces are often more resilient to climate change and invasive exotic species.
European rewilding initiatives
Although the term ‘wilderness evolution’ does not appear as such in the current 2030 national biodiversity strategy, those managing natural areas can include it in their work. Numerous initiatives are also being implemented to rewild regions on a European level. From this wider perspective, wilderness evolution involves reintroducing animal and plant species that are capable of creating an environment other species need in order to survive (known as ‘keystone’ or ‘architect’ species) in areas where they have disappeared, or creating protected areas that allow ecosystems to freely develop ecological systems unaffected by humans.
Wilderness evolution: a developing practice
Forests were the first environments to benefit from wilderness evolution.
Various associations are purchasing forestland as part of their efforts to rewild nature. This is the case of the Forêts Sauvages organisation, which is fully committed to implementing wilderness evolution in forests. By acquiring plots of wilderness, Forêts Sauvages aims to protect local biodiversity and ecosystems by liberating them from any human intervention.
Other interesting initiatives are also worth mentioning, such as those launched by French biologist Francis Hallé, who aims to revive a 70,000-hectare primary forest in Western Europe. As he points out, “a forest needs about a millennium to requalify as primary and become as biodiverse as it can be.” His non-profit organisation is looking for a cross-border forest area with a French base that can evolve independently and reinvigorate its own fauna and flora without any human intervention over a period of several centuries. This highly innovative, ultra-long-term project also requires the commitment of future generations.
The Plant For Life programme: taking action for trees
For over 30 years, the Yves Rocher Foundation has been working to preserve biodiversity by supporting local reforestation initiatives around the world. Nearly 120 million trees have already been planted in 35 countries via its Plant for Life programme. But that’s not all! The Yves Rocher Foundation is committed to supporting agroforestry projects, as well as all the initiatives currently underway to restore our forests and enable them to evolve naturally. It also works to spread awareness and foster involvement.
⏩ Explore the Plant For Life programme in France and around the world
At a time when the climate is forcing us to rethink the ways in which we protect our ecosystems, the increasing number of initiatives – such as wilderness evolution in forests – proves that new mechanisms for safeguarding biodiversity are within reach.
French forestry review