Ecosystems are being used unsustainably worldwide, and many are at risk of being lost forever. In many parts of the world, ecosystems are no longer providing essential services, such as food and water production, climate regulation, carbon storage, crop pollination, and wildlife habitat.
Ecological restoration is the process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged, or destroyed (Society for Ecological Restoration definition). Ecological restoration is a means of sustaining the diversity of life on Earth and re-establishing an ecologically healthy relationship between nature and culture. Ecological restoration can and should be a fundamental component of conservation and sustainable development programs throughout the world by virtue of its inherent capacity to provide people with the opportunity to not only repair ecological damage, but also improve the human condition.
Restoration ecology is a relatively new science that provides the knowledge and helps guide the development of the tools and technology needed to return an ecosystem to health. In many cases, restoration works to enhance the process of ecological succession. After a disturbance such as a fire or a storm, succession occurs naturally as plants and wildlife return to the area and re-establish a complex network of interdependent species. However, where an ecosystem has been damaged by humans, the process of succession must be facilitated by human intervention. Non-native plants and wildlife that have invaded an area should be removed or at least controlled; erosion control measures must be put into place, and native species in many cases must be reintroduced or their populations reinforced.
For restoration to be successful, it is essential to have understanding of the dynamics of the ecosystem being restored, and to ensure the genetic integrity of its plants by using locally propagated species.
Members of the Dai ethnic minority replant an area of forest on a hill that is considered as a holy site at Mangyangguan, Xishuangbanna, China. Photo: Barney Wilczak