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Open Mic: Repatriation & Reintroduction Revisited

At the Mic: Stacia Novy

Stacia Novy is employed by the US military and also does contractual work for The Peregrine Fund. The latter led to her co-discovering a Solitary Eagle nest in Belize’s Mountain Pine Ridge on 30 June 2011.  She has traveled around the world birdwatching, fishing, and hunting. Her adventures have been  published by the Illinois Ornithological Society, The Journal of the North American Falconers Association, American Falconry, and several online birding magazines.


    In the August 2012 issue of Winging It, I penned an article on the word “repatriation”, intended for a general audience without a strict biological background. Since, Rick Wright has voiced criticism of that article on his blog. It has become clear to me that the two terms may warrant examination in a scientific, as well as etymological, context.

A standard biological definition of an “Introduced Species” is: “an alien, exotic, non-indigenous or non-native organism that is present outside of its native range or distributional habitat…” Similarly, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines an “introduced species” as those organisms that are “surviving and reproducing outside of the habitat or environment in which they evolved or spread naturally…” In both definitions, the qualifying phrase “outside of the native range, habitat or environment” is a key consideration in defining and determining a species that has been introduced. Thus, the process of “species introduction”–which ultimately results in an introduced species–applies to organisms or species which conclusively fit that description. It excludes those which are released, accidentally or deliberately, into distributional ranges where an evolutionary history or a history of natural dispersal exists.

Therefore, it is counter-intuitive to suggest that “species introduction” or subsequent introductions (i.e., “reintroduction”) results in species that are surviving and reproducing inside of the habitat, native range or environment in which they evolved or dispersed naturally.

This definition being established for an “introduced species”, and adopted by many conservation biology texts, is such that it can be applied only to those species that are alien, exotic, non-indigenous, non-native and/or living outside of historical ranges. This distinction was noted in my article. Even if one disagrees with semantic variations on the prefix “re-“, the root word “introduction” cannot and should not identify conservation programs devoted to the release of native species into historical areas and/or distributional ranges.

Peregrine Falcon, repatriated or reintroduced? photo by Mike Baird

Wright’s suggestion that species reintroduction implies “….a species being led back or put back…” into a former environment is simply not correct from an evolutionary or biological perspective: a native species cannot be “introduced as new”, “introduced as for the first time”, or even “led back into” an environment in which a genetic and ecological legacy has existed for eons. The premise is this: a native species that has evolved within such contexts already holds a long-standing interaction with its environment and, genetically, has never been separated from it.

The original definitions of “introduction” and, especially, “reintroduction” have been corrupted since the implementation and widespread use of wildlife release programs in the past 30 years or so. The vast majority of these programs were designed to release captive individuals of a given species of concern into native environments and/or historical distributional ranges to replenish dwindling or extirpated wild populations. Hence, the terms “introduction” and “reintroduction” do not properly identify the historical origin of the species in question for such projects.

Although an advocate of the term “repatriation”, I am not the first to realize its application to conservation biology. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service biologists educated me on the subtle differences between repatriation and reintroduction. They, too, were dissatisfied with the latter word to describe the release of native species into historical distributional ranges. Other astute biologists have proposed the following terms: “reestablishment”, “reinforcement”, and “restoration—in lieu of “reintroduction”.

As far as it being “so silly that there is no danger of it catching on”, it’s too late now. Research will reveal that zoological parks, nature centers, and wildlife rehabilitation agencies employ “animal repatriation” to transition captive individuals to wild locations of native origin. I see little difference in the activity of these wildlife release programs and those of conservation biology.

The field of wildlife conservation is rapidly expanding, gaining in popularity, and experiencing the associated “growing pains” of any new discipline. Standardization of nomenclature is a much needed improvement. “Restoration”, “reestablishment”, and “reinforcement” are solid terms to describe the augmentation or return of a species to any environment, regardless of origin and evolutionary history. They are also applicable to single species or multi-species projects (e.g., “the reestablishment of a wetland” or “prairie restoration”). However, to specifically differentiate between wildlife projects involving the return of native species from those involving non-native species, the terms “repatriation” and “reintroduction” are ideal. Repatriation recognizes the evolutionary and/or historical connections that exist between a native species, its environment, and its place of origin; reintroduction does not.

As an example of the contradiction in terms, consider the paper, “Guidelines for the in situ Re-introduction and Translocation of African and Asian Rhinoceros”, published in 2009 by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). In it, species “introduction” and “re-introduction” are cited as follows:

Introduction: Introduction of an organism is the intentional or accidental dispersal by human agency of a living organism outside its historically known native range…”

Re-introduction: An attempt to establish a species in an area which was once part of its historical range, but from which it has been extirpated or become extinct…”

The first definition is similar to the one presented by the EPA and specifically identifies those species “living outside [a] historically known native range” (i.e., not-native, foreign, exotic, or non-indigenous). In contrast, the second definition identifies species that are to be established “in an area which was once part of its historical range”. Thus, it identifies species which will be living inside or within a historical, distributional range (i.e., native or indigenous). The two terms are nearly opposites of one another. The only difference between them is the prefix “re-“.

I checked many dictionaries in the course of my investigation and none listed a potential meaning of the prefix “re-“ as an “opposite” to introduction. “Re-“ can mean the opposite of “de-“ (e.g. recurved and decurved), but I have never seen the terms “de-introduction” and “re-introduction” promoted in the scientific literature. As Mr. Wright also noted, “re-“ can “indicate withdrawal or backward motion”, as in retract or retrace. However, “re-introduction”, as it’s commonly applied to wildlife biology now, does not indicate “an introduction over and over” and it certainly does not indicate “withdrawal”. On the contrary, it represents the “opposite”.

In the preceding 30-40 years, semantics on the prefix “re-“ have been distorted in the conservation field to include definitions like the one offered by the IUCN. This corruption in meaning has been widely adopted and applied by laypersons and experts alike.

In fact, the ICUN editors applied the following disclaimer, “….The views expressed in this publication are those of the authors”, and rightly so. In the paper, the authors acknowledge that species “reestablishment” has been used in place of “reintroduction”.

Wright’s assertion that “[his] dictionary is better than [mine]” is an amusing and philosophically unsound argument. The dictionary quoted in his blog is likely more recent, not “better”. Dictionary editors are known to update newer versions with words that have gained widespread use since the last publication. However, popularity does not make a word “accurate” or “correct” in application.

I deliberately referenced an old dictionary, prior to the advent of modern wildlife conservation practices, to gain an uncorrupted definition of the word “reintroduction”. And while misapplied terminology might not have so great a negative impact among the general populace, it most certainly has a negative impact among scientific and academic communities. Clear communication is critical to the dissemination of knowledge, replication of experimentation, the evaluation of research methods, and the promotion of ideas and goals. One of the first scientists to realize the dangers of inaccurate and inconsistent nomenclature was Linnaeus. It is an ideal that we are still struggling to achieve today.

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Nate Swick

Nate Swick

Editor, Social Media Manager at American Birding Association
Nate Swick is the editor of the American Birding Association Blog, social media manager for the ABA, and the host of the American Birding Podcast. He lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Danielle, and two young children. He is the author of Birding for the Curious and The ABA Field Guide to Birds of the Carolinas.
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