Rewildling Europe – Why wolves, bears, and other carnivores are making a comeback

By Orion McCarthy 

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Bears and other large carnivores are difficult to conserve for both ecological and social reasons. Photo credit: Sustainable Leader.

CARNIVORE conservation can be summed up in a single word: challenging.

Large carnivores, such as wolves, bears, and tigers, have always been among the hardest animals to conserve. These species often require large tracts of connected habitat and an ample prey base to thrive, making them difficult and expensive to protect.

In addition to these ecological barriers, carnivore conservation invokes social challenges. The threat of human-wildlife conflict combined with pervasive cultural associations with apex predators, both positive and negative, make carnivore conservation programs a magnet for controversy.

In spite of these hurdles, several long imperiled carnivore species are beginning to bounce back from the brink in the unlikeliest of places.

An Unlikely Spot for an Unlikely Success Story

As one of the most intensely developed areas in the world, Europe would seem to be an unusual spot for carnivores to stage a comeback. But a recent study of four European carnivore species found that apex predators are expanding their range across the continent.

Using data from the Large Carnivore Initiative for Europe, researchers looked at the occurrence of brown bears (Ursus arctos), Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx), gray wolves (Canis lupus) and wolverines (Gulo gulo) in every European country except for Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, and very small countries such as Andorra.

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European populations of gray wolves (Canis lupus), wolverines (Gulo gulo), brown bears (Ursus arctos) and Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) are increasing. These four species collectively occupy one third of Europe. Photo credit: Wikipedia, Mike Needham, Dan Stodola, Trees for Life.

The researchers found that these four carnivores collectively occupy one third of mainland Europe. Carnivore biodiversity was highest in the sparsely populated wilderness of Scandinavia and Iberia, and throughout mountain ranges such as the Alps and the Carpathians, but all four species were also found in areas with higher human population densities. In total, large carnivores were found in all but four mainland European countries surveyed.

Not only are carnivores widespread throughout Europe, the majority of carnivore populations surveyed were found to be stable or increasing. Wolves, bears, lynx, and wolverines were also found at high densities both inside and outside protected areas, and are known to coexist with human populations in rural areas.

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The persistent public fear of large carnivores is evident in the characterization of wolves and bears in fables and fairy tales from medieval Europe. Photo credit: Charles Perrault.

The resurgence of apex predators is surprising in part because of Europe’s tumultuous history of conflict with carnivores. In the Middle Ages, many countries and kingdoms sought to exterminate wolves and other predators by offering hunters land, bounties, and other incentives . Even as many predator populations declined, a persistent public fear of wolves and bears spurned further hunting. Wolves were exterminated from Scotland and Ireland in the 18th century, and began disappearing from other European countries shortly thereafter.

After hitting historic population lows in the mid 20th century, European carnivores began to recover after the formation of the EU.

The EU-inspired age of international coordination and cooperation has allowed continent-wide conservation initiatives to take form, including the Habitats Directive, the Bern Convention, and the EU Biodiversity Strategy. These programs provide uniform legal protection across borders for carnivores and other species and coordinate wildlife management strategies to maximize conservation effectiveness. European carnivores also benefit from Natura 2000, an EU-devised network of protected areas and wildlife corridors covering 18% of the EU’s land area.

Chapron et al. 2015 carnivore occurence map

The current (dark blue) and historic (light blue) population range for brown bears, gray wolves, Eurasian lynx, and wolverines in Europe. Photo credit: Chapron et al. 2014.

European wildlife also enjoys a relatively stable political climate. Unlike some areas of the world, where paper governments are powerless to stop rampant habitat destruction and wildlife crime, strong environmental regulations within the EU prevent resource extraction industries, such as forestry and mining, from having free reign over the landscape.

European carnivores have also benefitted from a human population shift towards urban living and from the recovery of prey populations across the continent. Both of these trends have reduced human-wildlife conflict by decreasing carnivore encounters with humans or livestock. Where humans and carnivores do overlap, public education initiatives and depredation measures, such as guard dogs and electric fences, have kept human-wildlife conflict low in most areas.

Beyond Europe – Approaches to Carnivore Conservation
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A group of Eurasian lynx in the snow. Photocredit: Photobucket.

European coexistence with large carnivores represents one of the EU’s biggest conservation success stories. Outside of Europe, other regions have attempted to solve the social and ecological challenges of carnivore conservation using a variety of approaches.

In North America, where human population density is lower and intact wilderness is more expansive, the United States and Canada rely heavily on national parks and protected areas to keep wild carnivore populations separate from human population centers.

This model of conservation, termed the separation model, seeks to minimize conflict by separating humans and wildlife, and differs from the European coexistence model. While some North American black bear, gray wolf, and mountain lion populations have shown signs of recovery inside protected areas, problems have arisen when recovering wildlife populations expand into surrounding urban regions unaccustomed to their presence.

On the other side of the world, carnivores have begun to recover in Southern Asia.

Tigers, leopards, hyenas, and other carnivore populations have been observed inside and outside of protected areas in India, even in cropland areas devoid of wilderness and in densely populated regions. Many of these predators subsist on a diet of domestic animals, raising the specter of conflict with people, especially in India’s densely populated provinces. However, India’s Wildlife Protection Act and the country’s cultural reverence for nature help to minimize human-wildlife conflict, giving tigers and other species a chance to rebound.

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A new population survey in India shows tigers making a modest comeback. Photo credit: WWF.

Learning from Success Stories

Despite different approaches to carnivore conservation, India, North America, and Europe all possess key similarities, such as a relatively stable political climate and large centralized governments that increase the likelihood of success for carnivore conservation programs. These political structures have aided the recovery of tigers, leopards, wolves, bears, and other charismatic carnivore species.

But carnivore populations are not increasing everywhere. In Africa, demographic trends, environmental degradation, political instability, and wildlife crime have prevented the rise of large-scale, coordinated wildlife management. In the face of these challenges, wildlife populations are dropping precipitously, both inside and outside of protected areas, in Kenya, Tanzania, and South Africa, among others.

The barriers to conservation in Africa and other developing regions are not going to be solved with one quick fix, and no single solution will work everywhere. However, lessons from successful conservation programs in Europe and other regions could prove useful as Africa charts a path forwards.

  • Conservationists should broaden management goals to focus on conserving wildlife both inside and outside of protected areas, especially in areas with limited space and growing human populations where animals will need to coexist.
  • When planning carnivore conservation programs, it is important to consider not only ecological carrying capacity but also social carrying capacity. Social carrying capacity refers to the amount of animals a human population can coexist with before human-wildlife conflict erodes support for conservation initiatives.
  • Industrialized countries should partner with developing countries to encourage political stability and human development. If a stable foundation is laid, environmental regulations will follow and will be easier to enforce.
Cheetah, Namibia

Unlike Europe, India, and North America, carnivore populations in Africa are declining.  Photo credit: Martin Harvey, WWF.

What YOU can do

As carnivore populations recover in Europe and beyond, more and more people will begin to encounter these fantastic predatory species. As successful programs in Europe and other areas have shown, coexistence with these powerful creatures is possible. By following a few simple guidelines, you can minimize your risk, protect your property, and live safely alongside carnivores and other wildlife.

  • Be proactive – Since most animals are naturally afraid of humans, conflicts often arise when animals become habituated to humans or associate them with food. Avoid feeding wild animals, securely store your garbage, and feed pets indoors to avoid attracting unwanted visitors.  Fence in your garden, and plant unpalatable vegetation to discourage browsing.
  • Be prepared – Before camping, hiking, or venturing into natural areas, learn about the animals that you might encounter. Let others know your plans before venturing off in the woods, and if possible hike with a companion. Above all, don’t approach or harass any wild animals that you encounter, and heed signage warning of potentially dangerous wildlife.
  • Be patient – Some wildlife related property damage is unavoidable. Take a moment to breathe instead of getting angry the next time deer devour your garden or raccoons raid your trash. Remember that we share our habitat with wild animals, and that they were here first.  We all have to share this planet, so we might as well get along.
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4 comments

  1. […] combined with policies that help foster coexistence between people and wildlife, there has been a resurgence of bears, wolves and […]

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  2. […] programs combined with policies that help foster coexistence between people and wildlife, there has been a resurgence of bears, wolves and […]

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