The 20th century was a close call for Europe's large carnivores. Wolves, brown bears, Eurasian lynx and wolverines were all early colonists after the various advances and retreats of the ice age. These four species thrived during all the dramatic environmental changes of the subsequent millennia. Even humans posed little serious threat to their survival until the development of effective firearms and poisons in the 16th and 17th centuries. However, by the early 20th century the combined effect of direct human persecution (with traps, guns and poison), extensive deforestation, and the near extermination of all large ungulates that are their main prey, led to dramatic reductions in the numbers and distributions of all large carnivores. By the mid 20th century it was touch and go for the persistence of these species throughout most of Europe.
The environmental movement starting in the 1960's and 1970's came just in time to save them from continental extinction. The dramatic changes in public attitudes and legislation that followed this movement coincided with the increase in both forest cover and the recovery of wild ungulate populations. The large carnivores have responded well to these improved circumstances. At the moment the situation of most populations, with a few important exceptions, is either stable or increasing. This has mainly occurred through natural expansion, although bears and lynx have benefited from reintroduction programs in some areas. As a result it is no longer a question of saving them from imminent extinction. In other words, we have been given a second chance to try and find a way to sustainably coexist with these species. However, achieving this with large carnivores is not easy, as they present a number of unique challenges.
The modern European landscape
There is one issue that no matter how obvious it seems must never be forgotten. We have no wilderness left in Europe. The entire European landscape is human dominated. There are many areas of semi-natural habitat, often with high conservation values, but there are no large areas where carnivores can roam without coming into contact with humans. Our National Parks and other protected areas are far too small to contain populations of species such as large carnivores, and most of our protected areas are intensively used by humans. As a result this means that if we are going to conserve large carnivores in Europe, we must do so in the same landscapes where we live, work and play. This requires a conservation philosophy based on integrating people and nature into the same landscape - not separating them as is often done in places like Africa and India where conservation of large mammals is often relegated to protected areas from which humans are excluded.
A new vision for the European landscapes
There should be no illusions about the difficulty of the task ahead. Integrating large carnivores into sustainable landscapes is not going to be easy. There are many difficult, technical and often expensive tasks that lie ahead to minimise conflicts and ensure the viability of their populations. These tasks include finding monitoring methods, reducing the barrier effects of highways, translocating individuals to reinforce small populations, adapting livestock husbandry practices, to name just a few. In addition, the greatest challenge is to change the way that we humans think. If we are to succeed, we need to recognise that large carnivores are an integral part of our modern European landscapes. People will need to accept the right of these species to exist, and need to be willing to share space in the landscape and a part of nature's productivity with these wild animals. People need to be willing to live with something slightly wild close to their homes. This is a very new vision for the European landscape. A vision where humans do not seek to dominate and control every part of nature. A vision that leaves something for wildlife. Modern legislation at international and national level opens for this new vision. It's a bold idea, and now we have to make it work - with large carnivores being perhaps the ultimate test of our resolve. Large carnivores have repeatedly shown their ability to live with us humans - we just need to find a way to live with them. The paradox is that in our modern crowded world leaving space for the wild will require very detailed and coordinated planning at both the global (European) and local levels.
Mr John Linnell, Large Carnivore Initiative for Europe, email@example.com