The wild side of Europe – The return of large carnivores

In recent times, our continent is succeeding in maintaining and restoring on a continental scale viable populations of large carnivores such as the wolf (Canis lupus), the brown bear (Ursus arctos), the Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) and the wolverine (Gulo gulo). Even in the crowded Netherlands, which can be proud of the presence of territorial wolves since 2018, the European wild cat (Felis silvestris), the white-tailed eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla), the eagle owl (Bubo bubo) and the crane (Grus grus) have recently returned as reproducing species. When we think about wilderness, our imagination may fly over the endless forests of the National Parks in North America. But even though Europe is more than twice densely populated (97 inhabitants/km2 versus 40 inhabitants/km2) and half of the size of North America, the old continent hosts a larger number of bears and twice as many wolves as the United States. How is this possible?

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Figure:. Geographic distribution of (A) wolves, (B) brown bears, (C) Eurasian lynx, and (D) wolverines in Europe, 2012,2016. The maps show areas of permanent presence in dark blue, and of irregular presence in light blue. Source: Linnell and Cretois (2018).

Since the end of World War II, Europe has benefited from political stability and proper law enforcement. This stability allowed the creation of the strong environmental regulations that served to promote biodiversity conservation. Coordinated legislation (such us the Habitats Directive, the Bern Convention, and the EU Biodiversity Strategy) shared by many European countries provides legal protection of wild species across the continent and over the years led to an improvement in habitat quality. The socio-economic changes which has recently characterized the human population in Europe (and worldwide) is another important aspect correlated to the coming back of the large carnivores. Over the past four decades, human population shift towards urban areas, leaving behind abandoned agricultural land which has been claimed by wild ungulates and consequently by large carnivores.

From separation to coexistence

In our modern and crowded world, large carnivores are among the most challenging taxonomic groups to conserve mainly because of their area requirements and predatory behaviour (on both wild prey and livestock). The traditional model of wildlife management originated in North America separates people from the wilderness (separation model). In this approach, wild animals can survive only in protected areas, far away from human presence. However, large carnivores are showing us that they are instead able to survive, recover and persist in the modern highly populated world if they are allowed to do so. They have recolonized areas with moderate human impact and have spread their territory in highly-fragmented landscapes because they found enough food and protection, especially due to the modern wildlife-protection policies. The rewilding trend Europe is facing in recent years is changing the perspective and moving conservationists toward a different model of wildlife management: the coexistence model, where the land can be shared with wildlife. The return of the wolf and other predators in Europe is showing us that conservation of large carnivores is possible in a human-dominated landscape especially if management policy is favourable.

Space for everyone

Let’s be honest: except for those places where few large carnivores survived (for example the wolf in the Southern Apennine in Italy), the rest of Europe is not really used to have wildlife roaming right outside the doorstep. We were born in a predator-free world: a world made for us by our grandparents and ancestors and which is considered “safe” and nowadays “normal”.

But what is “normality” anyway? It’s a perspective, a pretty much anthropogenic perspective where the focal point is us, humans.  What if we try to stand outside our “human bubble”? What if we try to think more on a global level, where all the beings of this world have their right to be here and now? We would find out that there is much more to understand from the wild than we expected. Wolves, lynxes, bears (and many others) are telling us that they are willing to live next to our villages, to adapt to our presence, to learn what it means to thrive next to humans. Why don’t we listen and try to live next to them too?

Sure, it is not an easy process: much has to be learnt and probably many things must change. But is this really impossible? Personally, I don’t think so. I believe that we have been provided with a great opportunity on how to rediscover coexistence with wildlife. Nature is giving us a possibility, showing that there could be space for everyone. We should try to listen and take the opportunity to live a better relationship with our natural world.

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Chapron, G., Kaczensky, P., Yang, J.D., von Arx, M., Huber, D., Andrén, H., López-Bao, J.V., Adamec, M., Álvares, F., Anders, O. and Balčiauskas, L., 2014. Recovery of large carnivores in Europe’s modern human-dominated landscapes. science, 346(6216), pp.1517-1519.

Gippoliti, S., Brito, D., Cerfolli, F., Franco, D., Kryštufek, B., & Battisti, C. (2018). Europe as a model for large carnivores conservation: Is the glass half empty or half full?. Journal for Nature Conservation41, 73-78.

Research for AGRI Committee-The revival of wolves and other large predators and its impact on farmers and their livelihood in rural regions of Europe

Trouwborst, A., 2010. Managing the carnivore comeback: international and EU species protection law and the return of lynx, wolf and bear to Western Europe. Journal of Environmental Law, 22(3), pp.347-372.

Photo by Daniel Mirlea on Unsplash