Wolves and bears in Europe: a conservation success or a red rag to farmers and hunters?

  
Luc Bas, Director of the Brussels office of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) [Photo: IUCN]
Luc Bas, Director of the Brussels office of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. [IUCN]

Last week, the European Commission launched a multi-stakeholder platform to address the conflicts arising from the renewed spread of large carnivores across Europe, such as wolves and bears. Luc Bas explains why this dialogue is so important, and how the platform can be successful.

Luc Bas is the Director of the Brussels office of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)

Historically, large carnivores had seen their numbers and distribution decline dramatically, mainly as a consequence of human activity. However, in the last few decades, these animals have made a dramatic recovery across Europe and numbers have now reached around 40,000, with most of the populations stable or increasing. This is mainly due to favourable national and international policies protecting large carnivores, such as the EU Habitats Directive.

As a result, wolves, bears, lynx and wolverines have now returned to many areas from which they had been absent for decades, and reinforced their presence where they already occurred. As many as 21 EU countries are now home to at least one of these species. This recovery is a great conservation success, and we are glad to report that currently, most populations of large carnivores are further increasing or at least stable.

It is rare that a conservation success becomes a challenge to human activity – usually, the opposite is the case. However, when it comes to large carnivores, not everyone is as delighted to see the return of wolves and bears to their neighbourhood. It is understandable that the presence of large carnivores in areas where humans live, work and recreate can cause a variety of conflicts, such as depredation on livestock (and semi-domestic reindeer in Scandinavia), interaction with hunters, as well as social and cultural conflicts related to broader tensions between rural and urban areas.

This is where the EU Platform on Coexistence between People and Large Carnivores comes in. It was set up by the European Commission’s  DG Environment to facilitate constructive dialogue among key stakeholders including farmers, conservationists, landowners and hunters. The aim is to find commonly agreed solutions to conflicts arising from people living and working in close proximity to these large animals.

Already today, there are many positive examples of peaceful coexistence of humans with large carnivores across Europe, even in relatively densely populated and farmed areas. Much can be done to find solutions, from reinstating some long-forgotten sheparding practices to installing modern electric fences. Of course, due to the long absence of large carnivores, readopting the former practices can be a major challenge for social, cultural, economic and logistical reasons. This requires willingness to change, as well as technical assistance and economic support.

We recognise that due to the diversity of European situations and landscapes there are no management approaches that work in all contexts. Reintegrating large carnivores into the fabric of the European countryside therefore requires making a number of adjustments to practices of many sectors. It also requires dialogue and sharing of both positive and negative experiences with all the groups affected.

As one of the Platform’s members, IUCN looks forward to playing a constructive part in this laudable initiative to foster a positive dialogue. Our own network of 1,200 members and 11,000 experts globally spans a broad spectrum of interests in this field, from scientific institutions to environmental NGOs, from landowners to hunters and governments, and we have thus long experience in finding common ground. Dialogue, facilitation and convening different stakeholders is in IUCN’s DNA.

After all, there is no conservation without conversation.

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