How are large carnivores doing in Europe?
Overall, Europe hosts several large and stable large carnivores populations with thousands of individuals, many medium-sized and increasing populations that number in the hundreds of individuals, and a few small and declining populations with a few tens of individuals. Interestingly, none of the medium or large populations are declining.
Brown bears are the most abundant large carnivore in Europe, with an estimated total number around 17,000 individuals, and all population ranges are relatively stable or slightly expanding. Wolves are the second most abundant species, with stable and increasing populations estimated at 12,000 individuals total. The estimated total number of Eurasian lynx is around 9,000 individuals with most populations generally stable, although most of the reintroduced populations appear to have stagnated at relatively small sizes. The Balkan lynx populations, however, have declined. Finally, the estimated total number of wolverines is 1,250 individuals, and both populations are increasing.
Which species of large carnivores live in Europe?
The European continent hosts five (5) large carnivore species as follows: Brown bear (Ursus arctos), Wolf (Canis lupus), Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx), Iberian lynx (Lynx pardina) & Wolverine (Gulo gulo).
What is the geographic distribution of large carnivores in Europe?
All mainland European countries except for Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg have a permanent and reproducing population of at least one of the aforementioned large carnivore species. The total area with a permanent presence of at least one large carnivore species in Europe covers 1,529,800 km2 (roughly one-third of mainland Europe), and the area of occasional presence is expanding, as the presence of solitary dispersing wolves has been confirmed in Denmark, Belgium and very recently in the Netherlands.
Brown bears occur permanently in 22 countries and can be grouped into 10 populations, most of which are native populations. Eurasian lynx occurs permanently in 23 countries and can be grouped into 11 populations, five of them being native populations. Wolves currently occur permanently in 28 countries and can be grouped into 10 populations, which are all native. Wolverines, however, are only found in the three Fennoscandic countries, and they permanently occur over a total of 247,900 km2 in two populations. Because of the limited biogeographic distribution of wolverines, Fennoscandia is the only region containing four large carnivore species in Europe (171,500 km2), and could be considered as a large-carnivore hot spot together with southeastern Europe (Dinaric, Carpathian, and Balkan regions) and the Baltics.
Why have large carnivore numbers in Europe increased?
The reasons are multivariate and are related to ecological, institutional and socioeconomic factors. They include the following: The existence of natural habitats and the improvement of their quality and connectivity in certain areas, despite the heavily humanized and fragmented European landscapes; the adaptive strategies of large carnivores to re-colonization of a large scope of human-dominated landscapes; the frame of the EU environmental policies and relevant European legislation aiming at conservation of biodiversity combined with context-specific management strategies; the support of the European public and specific rural communities and stakeholder groups in areas with large carnivores.
Is the increase of large carnivore numbers in Europe the result of a natural or “artificial” process?
The increase of large carnivore population numbers in Europe is mainly related to a natural process/mechanism which involves: natural dispersal of new individuals, re-colonization of former (historical range) and establishment of meta-populations. Only in very few cases population augmentation has been the result of a human-related and scientifically founded practice (population restocking-reintroduction). This course has only been taken where a given species was/is at the verge of extinction: i.e. brown bear in the French Pyrenees and in the Italian Alps, Eurasian lynx in Switzerland, Iberian lynx in Spain.
Can different species of large carnivore live/co-exist in the same area/region?
Yes. Most of the large carnivore species on the European continent are sympatric meaning that they can share the same biogeographic areas. Three large carnivore species (brown bear, wolf and Eurasian lynx) overlap over 593,800 km2 in Europe. In Fennoscandia all four species of large carnivores (brown bear, wolf, Eurasian lynx and wolverine) coexist and share the same areas over 171,500 km2. The same situation occurs in the Balkan region where three species of large carnivores (brown bear, wolf and Eurasian lynx) coexist.
Are all large carnivore populations doing equally well?
No. Not all large carnivore populations are in favorable conservation status. Although the overall picture shows stabilization or positive population trends, some species with either very localized geographical distribution (i.e. Iberian lynx) or in very low densities (usually in the periphery of their distributional range i.e. Balkan lynx – a presumed subspecies of the Eurasian lynx) are in a rather precarious or a potentially endangered status. Even in the case of the large carnivore populations which are doing well (i.e. brown bear, wolf, wolverine) fragments of their populations, again in the periphery of their distributional range, are in a more precarious and vulnerable status.
Are large carnivores aggressive and/or dangerous to humans?
Aggressiveness is a behavioural pattern/attribute that characterizes most wild fauna species but more specifically carnivores. It may be exhibited in the form of a defensive or predatory mechanism as part of a survival strategy (protection of offspring, feeding and/or territorial competition etc). In these cases, large carnivores may show aggressive behavioral patterns. Aggressiveness specifically oriented towards humans is considered to be a very rare phenomenon, documented in very few and isolated cases in northern Europe and in the SE Balkans which occurs under very specific circumstances (such as those mentioned above).
Approaching large carnivores however, is not to be recommended. All wild animals should be left alone as, especially where they have young, they may be dangerous to humans.
What is the role/ “utility” of large carnivores in nature?
Large carnivores are predators and are therefore at the top of the trophic pyramid of the ecosystem and thus play a crucially regulatory role over ungulate populations, balancing the overall function of natural ecosystems. Some large carnivores are also scavengers (i.e. wolverine) and therefore also play a sanitary role in the ecosystem. Furthermore some large carnivore species which are also omnivorous (i.e. brown bear) contribute through their diet cycle to plants and fruits seeds dispersal thus enhancing the vegetation structure and diversity in a given ecosystem.
What causes conflict between people and large carnivores?
The major causes of conflict between people and large carnivores are of material and economic nature and reside in the economic loss for humans due to large carnivore damage to agricultural production in particular to domestic and semi-domestic livestock, crops and beehives. Further conflicts include competition for shared quarry by hunters and large carnivores, killing of dogs by wolves, destruction of property by bears, vehicle collisions, the potential danger of attack and injury. The European Commission has commissioned research into issues of conflict to help try to find solutions to the most common conflicts.
How well prepared are local communities to deal with increased numbers of large carnivores?
Previous research has shown that there is a geographical difference in attitudes of local communities towards large carnivores in European rural areas. Herding style and density of human settlements, for example might influence attitudes of local communities towards large carnivores in European rural areas.
The stabilizing or increasing population trends of large carnivores has led to the expansion of species in areas where they have been absent for many decades. Local people in these areas across Europe are not used to living with large carnivores and livestock raising methods have changed to reflect this (e.g. no livestock guarding dogs are used). Such instances present substantial challenges for coexistence with large carnivores in the European rural environment.
How can communities be supported in dealing with issues around large carnivores?
Local communities need to be supported in the use of damage prevention methods, for instance setting up electrical fences and using guarding dogs. Compensation systems are available when damage could not have been prevented.
However, in many cases, socio-cultural, procedural or bureaucratic issues might act as barriers and discourage the local people affected from adopting damage prevention methods (e.g. competitive relationships among stock breeders) or difficulties claiming compensation (e.g. high administrative fees). In other cases, local governance problems which are not obviously linked to large carnivores might escalate conflict. For example, waste attracts bears, and therefore, if proper waste disposal units and proper management systems are not in place, human-bear conflicts might intensify. All these instances present substantial challenges for stakeholders in large carnivore conservation and management.
Do large carnivores also bring benefits to local communities?
Large carnivores can also bring benefits to local communities, especially in cases where they have had the opportunity and the desire to join with the Public authorities and large carnivores experts to develop a common management plan. One of the most important benefits is the economic boost that large carnivores can provide to a community by providing an added value to the wilderness attractiveness of a given natural area. An economic boost can also be derived by taking advantage of the existence of large carnivores in order to label specific local agricultural products thus triggering a new stream of recreational visitors, wildlife amateurs and consumers. This will have an overall positive effect on “green” tourism in the area.
Does the fact that large carnivore populations have stabilised or increased in Europe, necessarily imply increase of conflicts with other economic activities?
Not necessarily. Different types of livestock management, successful implementation of prevention measures, capacity of local management structures, education and awareness levels, how well used people are to dealing with large carnivores, as well other factors (from cultural values and tradition to agricultural policies), play a crucial role in the reaction of local people, the extent of damage-problems and the level of tolerance towards large carnivores.
In cases where large carnivore species have recolonized areas from which they have long been absent, people may not be adequately prepared and informed to take all necessary preventive measures in order to minimise conflict. In such situations, however, compensatory economic benefits to local communities from the return of a large carnivore species should not be underestimated. In general if management strategies and practices are put in place on time, the increase of conflicts related to an increasing large carnivore population should be minor. An increase in numbers, therefore does not necessarily imply an increase in conflicts.
By what means can the nature of these conflicts be assessed and reduced?
Conflicts have been assessed on three levels: a) environmental-technical b) social-educational c) economic.
a) environmental-technical: Research undertaken by large carnivores experts has resulted in a series of measures being developed that have been proved to be effective in order to prevent, stop or minimise conflicts. Some of the most popular measures are the following:
b) social-educational: Many educational programs have been implemented all over Europe in order to educate children and adults about large-carnivores, to tackle any prejudice caused by lack of knowledge and to show how human-large carnivores coexistence is viable. Most often, such programmes have been set in place by state/local authorities, conservationists or environmental NGOs. In these programmes it is important to consider special groups of stakeholders most affected by interaction with large carnivores in their day-to-day businesses (hunters, livestock breeders, beekeepers, farmers, etc).
c) economic: In many member states, a series of subsidy systems at national and local level has been implemented in order to alleviate damages in the agricultural sector, including direct losses of killed animals/destroyed infrastructure, indirect losses of productivity, increased costs for more labour intensive methods etc.
Are means of resolving conflicts similar across the EU?
“Resolution” in most cases does not mean that conflicts are addressed once and for all. Even when a problem had been successfully dealt with in the past, it might re-emerge in the future under a new frame. Local circumstances vary significantly in different locations and at different times. No previous solution can be celebrated as a panacea. Varying stakeholder composition, geographical and socio-cultural parameters, rural population trends, all these aspects might affect the intensity of the conflicts related to large carnivores.
How are stakeholders' views and attitudes towards large carnivores taken into account in the development of policy?
Environmental policy has been undergoing a significant transition from top-down, exclusionary approaches to bottom-up, inclusionary paradigms. Much remains still to be done to achieve this desired participatory character. Two aspects should be considered here. First, all stakeholder groups need to be involved in decision making and be prepared to accept compromise to agree actions undertaken in the frame of large carnivore conservation and management. Second, stakeholder inclusion needs to start from the stage of the formulation of objectives targeted. Recent initiatives attempt to address these two aspects in the development of policy at the European level.
How well informed are local communities on measures and tools to address conflicts with large carnivores?
The mitigation of the conflict between human and large carnivores continues to be the major problem in large carnivore conservation. One of the main reasons for this is the lack of information concerning the measures and tools that can be used to properly address the problem.
The level of knowledge within some local communities is still low, either because local communities are unaware of, disregard or doubt the effectiveness of measures to reduce conflict, or because they still think that these measures involve an investment of time and money that they are not willing to make. This may be the case, even in locations where financial support is available for reducing the conflict.
It is clear that more communication work on large carnivores is needed to make sure communities are aware of the means of resolving conflicts available to them.
Are there concrete examples (case studies) of successful conflict resolution that interested parties can refer to?
The Platform has gathered further case studies which break down example activities as follows: provision of advice / awareness raising; provision of practical support; understanding viewpoints; innovative financing and monitoring. A first analysis can be found in the Platform-commissioned report: Supporting good practice for coexistence – presentation of examples and analysis of support through the EAFRD. The Platform plans to carry out further analysis of how different interest groups can be brought together to work on coexistence.
Useful references on conflict resolution and coexistence can also be found on the Platform library page.
In addition, several EU-LIFE projects have financially supported concrete actions for improving human-large carnivores’ coexistence, such as:
Is EU funding available to support these measures?
The EU LIFE programme has supported many individual projects related to coexistence. More information is available from several reports commissioned by the European Commission.
A broader funding stream is provided by the Rural Development fund (EAFRD). Examples of how this has been used to fund coexistence measures as well as future potential of the fund are available on the Platform website and in the Platform-commissioned report: Supporting good practice for coexistence – presentation of examples and analysis of support through the EAFRD.
What is the Platform?
The EU Platform on Coexistence between People and large carnivores is a grouping of organisations representing different interests groups affected by and affecting the conservation of large carnivores who have agreed a joint mission: "To promote ways and means to minimize, and wherever possible find solutions to, conflicts between human interests and the presence of large carnivore species, by exchanging knowledge and by working together in an open-ended, constructive and mutually respectful way"
Seven stakeholder organisations are members of the EU platform on Coexistence between People and Large Carnivores launched by the European Commission:
How will the Platform contribute in improving large carnivore-human co-existence?
Platform Members acknowledge that human-large carnivore co-existence is not an easy target to achieve in all locations. There are many tensions to address and many more such tensions are expected to emerge under current socio-economic trends in a heterogeneous and changing European countryside. The Platform aims to build on best practice to promote human-large carnivore co-existence. It also wishes to create a novel “space” of stakeholder interaction, where stakeholders can discuss the costs and benefits related to large carnivore conservation and management and find means to address conflict, in their effort to develop a common vision. In order to do this, the Platform exchanges information on a regular bases as well as organising annual meetings and regional workshops. More information on current activities can be found on the news section of the Platform website.