If you stand atop a burial mound on Saï Island in Sudan today and look out at the boundless umber sand and red cliffs, you could imagine that time had stopped 4,000 years ago when the island was inhabited by the Kingdom of Kush and the ancient Egyptians. There are few signs of civilisation here — not a drone, a wire, a building.
But, of course, Saï Island Island has changed in those 4,000 years. The Nile has moved and temperatures have risen, so the island isn't able to naturally support humans in the way it once did. Some of this environmental change has been down to factors outside of human control, but much can be laid at our feet.
For decades, turning Saï Island’s ecological clock back to its ‘original’ condition — ‘rewilding’ it — seemed impossible. But in the 2050s, with our powers and resources recovering from The Melt, a question arose in Sudan: now that we finally have the capability to restore and rewild Saï Island, should we do it?
Many other places had already been rewilded by then; the Area de Conservación Guanacaste in Costa Rica and a substantial part of the North American Great Plains had been restored to a wilderness state in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. In the latter case, a number of Pleistocene species were controversially introduced by the 500 Project, including the onager, the grey wolf, and the African lion (standing in as the American lion). Environmental sociologist Professor Marcy MacGregor explains the motivation behind the rewilding projects:
"Take your pick! For some, it was an inherited guilt about ruining the environment. For others, it was sheer curiosity. Of course, some argued that the value or ‘authenticity’ of rewilding merely lay in the eye of the beholder, but overall there was strong and broad public support for rewilding, and this support was bolstered by a number of wider contemporary social trends.
"The first of those trends was driven by the plummeting cost of construction drones, powered by vast new solar arrays constructed in northwest Sudan. Projects that might once have taken an army of humans decades to complete could instead be carried out by specialised self-assembling robots in a few months, working continuously throughout the day and night.
"Then there was the rise of nomadism, which came about due to a combination of near-perfect telepresence, widespread unemployment, and cheap travel. Nomadism came to Sudan later than in other countries, but when it arrived the cities gradually began emptying out, and people began valuing the natural environment much more. If you've lived in a city all your life and only make the occasional trip outside, then you might not care all that much about the environment — not enough to want to spend money on it, at least. But things can change quickly when it's a lived experience.
"Finally, people were simply living longer. Life expectancy in Sudan had reached almost 85 years, which meant that people felt they were more likely to benefit from the results of rewilding, especially if you bear in mind that there had already been rapid, destructive climate change over the prior decades. And when people began thinking about their children and grandchildren, then even projects that might take a couple of centuries to come to fruition didn't seem entirely ridiculous."
More than a dozen rewilding projects were started in Sudan in the 50s and 60s, including an extension of the Dinder National Park and the reintroduction of Lacaon Pictus (the Painted Hunting Dog) in Mirgissa and Dabenarti Island. One site that was not rewilded, however, was Saï Island.
Despite a relentless campaign by Al Hizb Al-Ittihadi Al-Dimuqrati (the Democratic Unionist Party) to use advanced rewilding technology on Saï Island, voters decided that island’s ancient Kushite and Egyptian settlements had sufficient archaeology value to warrant protection, at least for the time being. Teams from the University of Khartoum and the British Museum were given another half century to properly document the settlements, and rewilding proponents resigned themselves to waiting. At least it meant that Saï Island could learn from the lessons of other rewilding projects elsewhere, they reasoned.
And that's why, as I begin the drive back to the boat, Saï Island looks very much the same as it did a century ago.