The startled horses flinch when the gate of the corral opens in front of them. But with drivers approaching them from behind with waving arms, freedom seems to be the only choice left. After hesitating for a moment, the herd jumps through the gate and runs off into the distance to the applause of a crowd of onlookers. "Have a good life!" a woman shouts as the animals disappear.
Diego Benito's biggest hope is that the newcomers will quickly reproduce in his reserve. He wants to hear the sound of thundering hooves. "These Retuerta horses are the wildest ones we have left," he says. "They used to roam around Spain in large herds." There are barely 200 of the horses left today.
Benito, a compact gamekeeper with a stubbly beard, manages the Campanarios de Azaba Biological Reserve, the new home of the 24 Retuertas he has just released. The reserve consists of about 500 hectares (1,235 acres) of fenced-in, hilly terrain in western Spain, along the border with Portugal.
In the past, farmers drove their pigs into the oak groves to feed on acorns in the fall. But it's hardly worthwhile anymore, which is why the horses have now taken over the terrain, together with "rewilded" cattle and a wolf that occasionally turns up in the area. The animals can no longer count on human assistance. If they get sick, they die. If they can't find food, they starve to death. If they can't outrun the wolves, they are eaten.
The 'Rewilding Europe' Project
The project's goal is to recreate the kind of wilderness that has almost disappeared from Europe.
A group of scientists led by Dutch conservation expert Frans Schepers has launched a unique experiment centered on the return of the large grazing animals that populated the Continent long ago: wild horses, European bisons (wisents) and red deer, to be kept in check by lynxes, bears and wolves. The scientists expect the greatest possible diversity of species to develop around the spectacular mammals, including insects, vultures, toads and snakes -- all the kinds of animals that were once forced out of their habitats by human activity.
Operators of nature preserves and activists across Europe want to be involved. Six areas have already been selected. They include the Danube delta, the Carpathian Mountains in Romania and the Velebit mountain range in Croatia (see graphic). The aim is to allow nature to return to its wild state as much as possible in each of these areas.
The project is called "Rewilding Europe." A number of conservation organizations, including the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), are involved in the effort. About €3 million ($4.1 million) in start-up capital was raised through a lottery in the Netherlands.
"The Campanarios in western Iberia is the most advanced of our pilot projects," says Schepers. A small herd of black-and-brown cattle with archaic traits -- high shoulders and narrow heads -- are now grazing in the preserve. They bear a remote resemblance to the wild aurochs, the ancestor of almost all domestic cattle. The last of the aurochs, a species that once roamed throughout Europe, died in Poland in 1627. Efforts are now underway to "back-breed" modern-day cows to produce animals that resemble the original aurochs as closely as possible.
Along with the aurochs disappeared most of the large mammals (or so-called megafauna) that had been living wild in the Old World. It is time to bring them back, says Schepers.
'Let the Animals Decide'
It seems to be an opportune time, as some rural areas become increasingly depopulated. Large stretches of land are already virtually abandoned because they are too remote, the soil is poor or the terrain is too steep. "From our vacations, most of us know these villages in which only old people are living" says Schepers.
More than 120,000 square kilometers (46,300 square miles), an area almost as large as Greece, will likely be abandoned throughout Europe in the next few decades, estimates the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP). In many instances, cultivated landscapes can only be preserved when the last few remaining farmers are paid to keep the meadows mowed.
Large herbivores can do it for free. Schepers believes that their sheer voracity -- in combination with other forces of nature, such as fires, storms and bark beetles, provided they are allowed to proceed unchecked -- would prevent large areas from becoming scrubby and forested again. "We would then have a mosaic of open, park-like landscapes with diverse vegetation," he says.
But is this wilderness? "Of course," says Schepers. "The prevailing belief in Europe is that wilderness equals forest. That's nonsense. There also used to be steppes and tundra, flood plains and open grassland. And that was long before man cleared the forests." In many areas, animals might indeed have been responsible for clearing the land.
Take the wisent, for example, a relative of the American bison. It is considered a forest animal. Since early spring, a small herd has been roaming the coniferous forests of the Rothaar Mountains in the western German states of Hesse and North Rhine-Westphalia. But Schepers is convinced that the wisent is actually better suited to open landscapes, like the bison. "The forest just happened to be the last habitat we had left for the wisent," says Schepers. "Let the animals decide for themselves, and we'll see where they go."
The red deer, which prefers grassy steppes, is in a similar position. Only the constant pressure from hunters prevents the animals from venturing into the open.
Open nature sometimes feels virtually depopulated, says Swedish photographer Staffan Widstrand, a co-founder of the rewilding movement. Not much is happening in the landscape, and to Widstrand, it feels like an empty theater. "Scenery, lights, props, it's all there -- only the actors are missing," he says.
A Bonanza for Residents, Tourists and Hunters
The vision of the rewilding movement is to put the actors back on the stage. And when that happens, the hope is that paying audiences will return as well.
Perhaps the day will come when people no longer have to travel to the Serengeti to marvel at grazing herds of hoofed animals and hunting predators. Instead, they'll be able to see wisents in Croatia's Velebit mountains, for example, where the first of the bovines will be released into the wild next year.
If all goes well, even hunters will eventually have their day. There will certainly be protected, no-hunting zones in the core regions; but if the animals venture into the surrounding countryside, they will be doing so at their own risk. The sale of game could become a source of income for local residents.
Even in the northeastern German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, residents are beginning to hope for safari tourists. Conservationists want to convert portions of the delta of the Oder River (or Odra River, in Polish) into reclaimed wilderness. The area has just acquired candidate status with Rewilding Europe. A biologically rich landscape extends around the mouth of the Oder, where it flows into the Baltic Sea, as well as parts of the island of Usedom and the Bay of Szczecin. There are already several conservation zones in the region.
"We are making good progress," says Ulrich Stöcker of the environmental group Deutsche Umwelthilfe, which proposed the project. "Even white-tailed eagles and gray seals are being spotted in the area again. And wisents are grazing over in Poland."
The animals could spread across the border into Germany in a few years, along with wild horses, red deer and elk. But Stöcker first wants to commission a feasibility study to estimate the potential revenues from visitors. This is the only way private landowners could be convinced to participate, he explains.
Choreography for Nature
Ecotourism promises to be a profitable business, at least according to the latest figures from the United States. In 2006, Americans spent more than $45 million on gear, accommodations and food for "wildlife watching." But America has more spectacular landscapes than Europe. The marshlands along the Oder River can't exactly compete with Yosemite National Park when it comes to visual appeal.
Nevertheless, conservationists believe that revenues will be nothing to sneeze at. The wildlife in Spain's Campanarios reserve is already drawing in tourists. For €50 a day, they can observe black storks or watch vultures gorge on the flesh of dead horses. There is also a comfortable hostel where guests are served regional cuisine.
Although the reserve is too small to qualify as a real wilderness, it is surrounded by an extensive region in which farming is hardly worthwhile anymore. If wild-animal tourism becomes an attractive source of revenue, adjacent tracts of land could easily become part of the Campanarios reserve.
Meanwhile, Diego Benito is turning his attention to biodiversity in the area. He hopes to see the Iberian lynx, which is almost extinct, become native to the region once again. The predator, though, needs a base population of rabbits, which are now in short supply in Spain after disease decimated the species. Benito once released 450 rabbits at the same time. "A few weeks later, they were almost all gone," he says. Foxes, martens and raptors had apparently helped themselves to the rabbits.
In unfamiliar terrain, rabbits hop around for a few days until they get their bearings. Only then do they dig burrows for shelter. But they are rarely granted that much time. To help the newcomers survive the critical first few days, Benito has planted grain for the rodents in a few spots and buried plastic pipes nearby as temporary shelter. Wilderness doesn't always take shape on its own.
Careful "casting" of the animals that will live in the preserves is also a good idea. Cattle as unsuspecting as dairy cows shouldn't be released into an area where lynxes and wolves will be lurking one day. Animals that resemble the aurochs -- strong runners with intimidating horns -- would be more appropriate. This is one of the reasons cows modeled after the mythical aurochs are being bred in the Campanarios. In addition to physically resembling their distant ancestor, the animals must be capable of withstanding pressure from the predators. "Our next task is to cross-in breeds that still have good wild-animal reflexes," says Ronald Goderie of the Dutch Taurus Foundation, which is engaged in back-breeding.
Different Definitions of 'Wilderness'
Not everyone agrees with the activists' notions of what a real wilderness should look like. "It looks more like a zoo to me," says biologist Christof Schenck, the executive director of the Frankfurt Zoological Society, a conservation organization. Schenck would rather protect the remnants of relatively wild nature, which happen to be the Continent's old-growth forests, with their unique fauna.
In fact, many animals love dying trees, dead wood and decay at all stages. One of them is the stock dove, which only nests in hollows that black woodpeckers have dug out of ancient tree trunks. Part of the dove's entourage is the small gray hide beetle, which lives in the organic sediment beneath the bird's nests, where it consumes disintegrating feathers. "Those are the real stories," says Schenck.
Of course, the hide beetle isn't exactly a charismatic creature. But it is precisely the Serengeti-style narrowing of the focus onto photogenic large mammals that troubles Schenck.
He also doesn't believe that the grazers are capable of stopping large-scale forest encroachment in the long term. "Our deer and wild boar are certainly industrious workers," he says, "but they still can't eliminate the tree population in real primeval forests."
But no matter how the experts view the past, they all agree that it's time to simply try out various approaches.
Schenck also advocates a more radical concept of wilderness. He wants to see more zones in which man has to accept the effects of fires and storms, even the invasions of the bark beetle -- that alone would contribute to the periodic clearing and thinning of forests.
According to an agreement enacted by the German government in 2007, 5 percent of wooded areas are to be declared off-limits to any exploitation. But that figure is still below 2 percent.
"In protected zones, we could learn how a wild ecosystem works in the first place," says Schenck. "Most of what we know today is based on managed nature."
Troubled by Nature
Death is also part of untamed life, and perhaps the biggest challenge to the public will be to look on as animals waste away or starve to death.
For almost three years now, large herds of horses and cows have been living in the wild in the Netherlands, only 35 kilometers (22 miles) from Amsterdam. The fenced landscape of lowlands reclaimed from the sea is called Oostvaardersplassen. It's too small to be considered a true wilderness, and yet it is large enough to demonstrate the kinds of things more sentimental animal lovers are in for.
In the winter, there is rarely enough food for all the animals, and hundreds of grazers die -- an inherently natural process. But because there are no large predators in Oostvaardersplassen, dying can take a while. Television programs depict exhausted animals cowering along the fences, which has led to protests by animal rights activists.
There is now a solution: Hunters shoot the animals that are not expected to survive the winter.
In some ways, it's just another safari.