A framework to measure the wildness of managed large vertebrate populations

As landscapes continue to fall under human influence through habitat loss and fragmentation, fencing is increasingly being used to mitigate anthropogenic threats and enhance the commercial value of wildlife. Subsequent intensification of management potentially erodes wildness by disembodying populations from landscapelevel processes, thereby disconnecting species from natural selection. Tools are needed to measure the degree to which populations of large vertebrate species in formally protected and privately owned wildlife areas are selfsustaining and free to adapt. We devised a framework to measure such wildness based on 6 attributes relating to the evolutionary and ecological dynamics of vertebrates (space, disease and parasite resistance, exposure to predation, exposure to limitations and fluctuations of food and water supply, and reproduction). For each attribute, we set empirical, species-specific thresholds between 5 wildness states based on quantifiable management interventions.

We analysed data from 205 private wildlife properties with management objectives spanning ecotourism to consumptive utilization to test the framework on 6 herbivore species representing a range of conservation statuses and commercial values. Wildness scores among species differed significantly, and the proportion of populations identified as wild ranged from 12% to 84%, which indicates the tool detected site-scale differences both among populations of different species and populations of the same species under different management regimes. By quantifying wildness, this framework provides practitioners with standardized measurement units that link biodiversity with the sustainable use of wildlife. Applications include informing species management plans at local scales; standardizing the inclusion of managed populations in red-list assessments; and providing a platform for certification and regulation of wildlife-based economies. Applying this framework may help embed wildness as a normative value in policy and mitigate the shifting baseline of what it means to truly conserve a species.