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Thursday, November 11, 1999 Published at 11:24 GMT


Campaign for Europe's carnivores

The grey wolf: They can adapt to us, if we will live with them

By Environment Correspondent Alex Kirby

The future of Europe's biggest carnivores has reached a crossroads, says the World Wide Fund for Nature.

Dr Alistair Bath from the Memorial University in Newfoundland advised WWF
It says one species, the Iberian lynx, is likely to vanish before very long. Others, like wolves, face hostility when they try to recolonise areas where they were once numerous.

Yet WWF thinks the predators should be encouraged to return, even when it means living close to people - to redress the ecological balance, and to act as a barometer of environmental health.

"You could say a carnivore like the lynx or the bear is rather like a canary in a coalmine", says a WWF spokeswoman.

"A viable carnivore population shows that biodiversity is healthy, because it means there are enough smaller prey species available for food".

Offering benefits

The carnivores, WWF says, are in conservation terms "Europe's equivalent of tigers and jaguars" - they are good for the environment, they can benefit local people by attracting tourists, and yet they often arouse local hostility.

[ image: Otters are slowly returning in Britain]
Otters are slowly returning in Britain
The co-ordinator of WWF's Large Carnivore Initiative for Europe (LCIE), William Pratesi, says this is a crucial time.

"We have the opportunity to exploit nature. Or we can co-exist with it and leave our children the opportunity to see large carnivores in the wild."

WWF wants to enhance the prospects of five European carnivores:

  • the Iberian lynx, now reduced to under 800 animals in ten isolated pockets in Spain and Portugal. It will probably become extinct in the next 50 years, and WWF says that will be "a huge embarrassment to Europe"
  • the Eurasian lynx, largely confined to northern and eastern Europe. There are slow signs of a comeback, but the species needs sensitive management
  • the grey wolf, found in eastern Europe, parts of Scandinavia, the Balkans, Italy and Iberia. "Current trends are generally positive", but poaching is still a problem
  • the brown bear - there are 36,000 in Russia, and a further 14,000 elsewhere in Europe. Several small and isolated populations may become extinct, but the bear can withstand some human pressure
  • the wolverine. The largest member of the weasel family, and confined now to Russia and parts of the Nordic countries, the wolverine is under serious human pressure.

Some pressures affect all five species - habitat loss, hunting, loss of prey species, and road traffic.

[ image: Russian bear poachers are a real threat]
Russian bear poachers are a real threat
And while most face hostility because they kill farm animals, WWF says there are benign ways to deter them.

In Italy, it has been promoting the breeding of Abruzzo mastiff dogs, used traditionally by shepherds because of their effectiveness against wolves.

Dogs are also used to guard flocks in Romania, where WWF is helping to fund a project in the Carpathians.

This is planned to be a model area to show how large numbers of wolves, bears and lynxes can live close to a big human and sheep population.

In Britain, where all the large carnivores were wiped out long ago, WWF says there is still concern over the fate of some smaller species.

It says the Scottish wild cat is endangered, and the polecat is facing renewed conflict with people when it tries to move out of its stronghold in Wales.

Only the otter is beginning a slow recovery after decades of decline.

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