Tropical Forests Can Regrow (If We Let Them), Plus More Good Climate News

Four image collage, clockwise from top left. Photo of a peregrine falcon, a solar field, a tropical rainforest, and bison, which are coming back to Britain in 2022.

A new study shows that significant tropical forest regrowth could take place over the course of just two decades. But first, humans need to stop meddling with them.

In just a few months, the UK is set to welcome the first wild British bison in nearly 12,000 years, and conservationists have spotted the extremely elusive Andean wildcat just outside of Santiago, the capital of Chile and home to around eight million people.

Meanwhile, dead space within solar parks could be used to encourage and support bumblebee populations, and even Hyde Park could get some new wildlife in the form of peregrine falcons and beavers. Here’s this week’s good climate news.

Photo shows a lush tropical forest with the sun shining down through the canopy. A new report indicates that tropical forests could show surprisingly rapid regrowth if left alone.
According to a recent study, tropical forest regrowth can regain the majority of previous ecosystem health within 20 years. | dennisvdw / Getty

Tropical forest regrowth could happen in just two decades

The good news: A study recently published in the journal Science reports that tropical forests can bounce back from “low-intensity land use,” which in this instance would mean that the majority of the woodland is left unmanaged.

If they are left alone by humans, they can regain approximately 78 percent of their old-growth status in just 20 years. Even tropical forest land that was previously used for agriculture is able to create a new ecosystem known as a “secondary” forest, which is composed of residual nutrients, soil, and even tree stumps.

The impact: While most mainstream adopters of reforestation favor the planting of new trees (particularly those looking for a quick way to “offset” their other, high-carbon activities), the study indicates that simply allowing natural regeneration is much better for biodiversity, climate mitigation, and nutrient recovery. Lead study author Lourens Poorter writes “Secondary forests should be embraced as a low-cost, natural solution for ecosystem restoration, climate change mitigation, and biodiversity conservation.”

Did you know? According to the FAO, around 10 million hectares of deforestation (nearly the size of Iceland) takes place every single year, with a huge 95 percent of this taking place in tropical forests. These areas are incredibly important ecosystems that support two-thirds of global biodiversity despite covering just 10 percent of the planet’s surface.

Everyday products including palm oil, coffee, soy, and beef are all linked to deforestation, which increased significantly in 2020. Halting this destruction, and expanding reforestation efforts, will be central to climate mitigation and the preservation of future biodiversity.

How you can help: You can support reforestation efforts by volunteering with or donating to organizations such as the Nature Conservancy, Tree Sisters, the Tree Council, and the Rewilding Network (via Rewilding Britain). Or, alternatively, make like backyard adventurer Beau Miles and carry out your own one-person reforestation project in your area. Just make sure you plant appropriate species in suitable spots and let nature take its own course.

Photo shows the head and shoulders of a huge bison as it moves through long grass. British Bison are coming back in early 2022 thanks to an upcoming, long-term rewilding project.
Early 2022 will see the first British bison in thousands of years. | RichLegg / Getty

Wild British bison are coming back in 2022

The good news: Britain’s first bison rangers are preparing for the introduction of four wild European bison to Kent, a county in the southeast of England. This follows the successful recovery of the keystone species in Europe. The two new rangers recently trained to work closely with the gigantic herbivores in the Netherlands, including by tracking movements and reading behavior. The bison will likely breed and the site is licensed for up to 10 individuals.

The impact: The million-pound Wilder Blean project is managed by Kent Wildlife Trust and will “promote stronger habitats by restoring natural processes” in a former commercial pine forest. Bison are ecosystem engineers, which means that they transform their environment purely by exhibiting instinctive behaviors such as feeding, trampling, and bathing.

The UK has now lost nearly half of all its biodiversity (including keystone species such as the British bison), contributing to further, ongoing loss and making it one of the most nature depleted countries in the world. Reintroducing bison, along with other ongoing rewilding projects, could help improve ecosystem health shift the balance.

Did you know? While the European bison is not endemic to Britain, it is the closest surviving relative to the globally extinct Bison schoetensacki. This makes the soon-to-be-introduced animals perfect surrogates for the long-gone native population which died out during the Pleistocene epoch, sharing a time period with Homo erectus, or “upright man.”

Bull bison can reach up to 1000 kilograms (that’s about the same weight as The Rock, times nine). Their love of chewing tree bark helps support grasslands and all the flora and fauna it contains, from butterflies and other pollinators to lizards and mammals.

How you can help: You can donate to support Kent Wildlife Trust in general or Wilder Blean specifically, and get involved directly here. Learn more about rewilding the European bison here, and the reintroduction of bison in the EU and U.S. here and here. Initial human intervention giving way to nature-led regeneration can be one of the most impactful, cost-effective, and holistic approaches to healing the planet. Learn more about that here.

Most endangered feline in the Americas spotted

The good news: Conservationist Bernardo Segura has captured footage of the Andean wildcat, arguably the most endangered feline in the Americas, just outside the city of Santiago, Chile. The elusive animal is just a little larger than a typical domestic house cat, with large, round paws, wide-set eyes, and a raccoon-like striped tail.

It appears on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) “Red List,” which estimates a world population of fewer than 1,400 adults. (For context, there are around 1,800 giant pandas left in the wild.)

The impact: Andean cats were previously thought to exclusively occupy remote areas far from humans, but this sighting shows a population living just outside of the Chilean capital. In fact, in a video published by the Guardian, Segura acknowledges that he can actually see the cats’ rocky habitat from his apartment window down below.

With an already small and still shrinking population, any sighting of the Andean wildcat is considered a conservation victory, but discovering a new habitat so close to a populated area is particularly significant. Segura, who volunteers with the Andean Cat Alliance (AGA), has identified at least three mature adults passing through the territory, as well as a separate group in Valparaíso, a coastal city just over 100 kilometers to the north-west of Santiago.

Did you know? According to Wildcat Conservation, the Andean cat is found almost exclusively at high altitudes throughout its namesake, the Andes mountain range, which also runs through Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina. However, recent observations also include habitats at a much lower elevation, such as the Patagonian Steppe—the largest desert in Argentina—and scrub habitats.

Like countless other animals impacted by a changing environment, it is likely that the Andean cat has been forced to adjust its hunting grounds in response to ecosystem destruction. In this case, damage to the Andean cat’s habitat is primarily caused by the fur industry, mining, and other forms of resource extraction.

How you can help: Support the AGA here and learn more about the coalition’s work, which includes research, conservation, community participation, and wild area management. Community engagement forms the core of the AGA’s ongoing efforts, and the Andean cat is considered sacred by Indigenous peoples such as the Quechua and Aymara. Learn more about the elusive feline and its unique traits from the Wildlife Conservation Network here.

Photo shows two workers installing solar panels in a field. Planting wildflower meadows in and around solar fields could help boost national pollinator populations.
By incorporating wildflower meadows into solar parks, renewable energy could help boost pollinator populations. | Visoot Uthairam / Getty

Thousands of solar parks could boost bumblebee numbers

The good news: Researchers at Lancaster University say that transforming solar parks into meadows could help boost the UK’s nesting bumblebee populations. According to the Independent, there are currently 14,000 hectares (around 54 square miles) of ground-mounted solar parks in the UK, some of which are already being used to encourage pollinators like bees. Transforming the rest could help the environment, help local farmers, and even make the fields that contain solar panels more attractive to passers-by.

The impact: The researchers say that planting wildflowers around the panels would boost bumblebee numbers more than half a mile away (around 1 kilometer), including for the surrounding farming communities reliant on pollinators. It would also help to counter criticisms of solar parks that highlight their appearance and use of rural land by pairing essential renewable energy generation with biodiversity-boosting rewilding efforts.

Did you know? Around 70 percent of the UK’s landmass is devoted to agriculture, much of which employs monoculture and pesticides at the further cost of biodiversity. But solar fields are not the first unlikely refuge for wildlife. Hedgerows, motorway sidings, and other partially forgotten, hiding-in-plain-sight areas are home to a surprising number of plants and creatures. If Britain is to meet its net-zero targets, an additional 90,000 hectares of solar parks are needed, providing ample opportunity for rewilding efforts and pollinator support.

“Bees, wasps, beetles, and other pollinators are essential to a functioning ecosystem. Without them, we risk the collapse of the entire natural world,” says James Byrne, Landscapes Recovery Programme Manager for The Wildlife Trusts. 

How you can help: Learn more about pollinators here and find different ways to help your local bees here, from bee hotels and wildflower beds to lobbying and advocacy. Supporting rewilding efforts, both at large and within your own backyard, also saves pollinator lives. Meanwhile, switching to a sustainable energy supplier and advocating for renewables makes a big difference to the general perception of solar panels, wind power, and hydropower.

Photo shows a peregrine falcon in profile. The installation of falcon bird boxes is just one of the ongoing British rewilding projects, along with beavers and bison.
Peregrine falcons are just one of the species that will benefit from making Hyde Park “wilder.” | Jason Miller Photography / Getty

Ambitious rewilding plans could see beavers and peregrine falcons in London’s Hyde Park

The good news: Mayor of London Sadiq Khan just made £600,000 available for rewilding efforts in the iconic Hyde Park. The funding will go towards the creation of additional green spaces, making existing park land “wilder,” and reintroducing lost species such as beavers and peregrine falcons along with swifts, stag beetles, and water voles. People will also be encouraged to plant green rooftops as part of urban greening efforts across the city.

The impact: Hyde Park is just one of London’s green spaces currently deemed unsuitable for the conservation and enhancement of British wildlife. By improving the park’s relationship with its own inhabitants, Khan hopes to boost biodiversity, absorb pollution, and ensure that all Londoners can access some kind of green space within 10 minutes walk of their home.

Following the pandemic, many people’s isolation from the natural world has been particularly notable, and an increasing body of research indicates that spending time in green spaces is good for mental and physical health. Worryingly, wealthy and white people also have more ready access to parks than people of color and working class households.

Did you know? Hyde Park was first established nearly 500 years ago by Henry VIII, and while it’s inarguably beautiful (and home to countless birds, bats, and foxes), it is also a long way from wilderness. Cultivated lawns, greenhouses, concrete paths, monuments, and an artificial lake bely the park’s Royal history, and make it less friendly to diverse flora and fauna. 

The reintroduction of beavers, in particular, would have a spectacular effect on the local environment. As shown by previous, successful rewilding projects, the presence of these dam-building ecosystem engineers could prevent London’s chronic flooding, clean the water, and create new wetlands—depleted but invaluable areas for carbon sequestration.

How you can help: As ever, you can support the many different rewilding charities, organizations, and projects that are working to make global ecosystems as healthy as possible. These include Rewilding Britain, Rewilding Europe, Trees For Life, the various Wildlife Trusts, the Wildlife Society, Rewilding Earth, and many, many more. Check out Rewilding Britain’s top tips for rewilding your own garden here.

Looking for more good climate news? Read the previous installments here.