Despite over the centuries the human beings put a lot of efforts into predators extermination, in Europe there are several mountain territories where wolves, bears and lynx still live.
They are more than we believe, especially in East Europe, although the environmental, cultural and even tourism importance of these animals has not yet been fully recognized.
The cohabitation between large carnivores and local residents have always raised important issues that, if not managed, can generate problematic situations the animals are then the only ones blamed for. But how are we coping with wolves and bears in Europe?
In Italy the situation is escalating. On 7 January 2017 a grey wolf was shot dead in Val d'Aveto, after weeks of the local residents reporting aggressions to pets and livestock.
Near Rieti, on 30 May 2017 a wolf was hanged next to a sign with written on it: "I ate sheep and calves and farmers received no refund". In Suvereto (LI) a wolf was skinned and hung at the roadside.
The frequency of these events commands prompt interventions and effective strategies. Being at risk of extinction, the gray wolf is a protected species, but according to the European Union the Italian authorities have proved to be chronically disinterested in investigating, to ensure the perpetrators are brought to justice.
In the meantime, on 6 December 2017 the decision on a 5% culling of wolves as a solution to the increase in the lupine population was postponed.
In the United Kingdom, there is a quite controversial debate going on. Wolves and bears were led to extinction here more than three centuries ago and the British institutions decided to not reintroduce them in order to grant public safety. But nature has his balances.
Thanks to the absence of predators, deer have increased dramatically in Great Britain, so much so that certain ecosystems are now being compromised. To make things worse, every year there are an average of 20 casualties caused by road accidents with deer. No bears and wolves statistics are so relevant for public safety in Europe.
Given the great success of the reintroduction of the wolf in Yellowstone Park (USA), which restored the balance between the large ungulates and the local flora, in the UK the same strategy is becoming more and more appealing.
A complete ecosystem is a healthy ecosystem. However, the presence of large predators in proximity of human settlements involves an extremely complex management framework that has necessarily to involve all the players. Conservation and safety must find the best way to coexist.
In a report of the European Union dated 2012, Italy results to be chronically unable to enforce existing laws, to put in place widespread preventive measures and to investigate illegal killings. Piedmont is the region that is apparently managing the situation in the best way. On the other hand, the incidents occurred in Trentino, where the brown bear was reintroduced in 1996, highlight the many problems of wildlife management in a very anthropized area.
Successful coexistence between large carnivores and humans is conditional upon effective mitigation of the impact of these species on humans. Although there is currently no infallible strategy able to grant a peaceful and seamless coexistence, here are some widely shared guidelines:
1) INFORM THE LOCAL RESIDENTS
about the advantages, implications and risks that derive from the presence of large predators. Residents play a key role in the good management of the situation: if they know how to create a bear/wolf-safe territory, if they do not feel neglected by the institutions, if they are aware of the importance these animals have, they will be more likely to contribute positively to the cohabitation. After the return of the wolf to Germany, in 2016 a monitoring and information centre was opened in Saxony to support residents in managing a possible coexistence.
2) EDUCATION OF RESIDENTS AND TOURISTS
on how to behave in wolf/bear country: items to carry during walks (pepper spray, bear resistant food storage boxes etc.), how to camp, how to make the wildlife aware of their presence, what to do in case of close encounter and so on. Generally speaking, these species carefully avoid men and, if they do not feel threatened or challenged, they have no interest in attacking.
A study by the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research (NINA) has shown that out of 125 cases in which a man approached a wolf, in 123 cases the wolf ran away, while in the remaining 2 an Alpha female showed defensive (but harmless) behaviors to protect the offspring.
Education is also made through public meetings, codes of best-practices, warning or informative signs on paths and roads.
3) PREVENTION INFRASTRUCTURE
The most common prevention infrastructures are electrified fences for farmers with livestock and bear-proof waste containers in each dwelling. Bears and wolves encroach towns and villages only to look for food. The bears are particularly greedy and more likely to lose shyness in case of easy feeding opportunities. It is therefore essential to firmly dissuade them from an early stage reducing attractants. Other useful tools are the Fladry or the Turboflandry (a portable fencing to protect livestock on the range) and other scare devices (visual or auditory deterrents).
The Governments give their contribution to supports the investments through public funding incentives, tax relief. It is very important that the financial commitment is managed as a public and community matter.
4) PREVENTION STRATEGIES
In addition to the above-mentioned technical measures, there are other strategies that can discourage predators from approaching human settlements. It is possible, for example, to try the taste aversive conditioning, injecting dead livestock carcasses with a chemical that causes vomiting and teaches the predator that livestock is not good to eat.
There are also livestock guardian dogs (LGD) specifically trained to discourage large predators.
Shock collars are sometimes evaluated by wildlife managers.
5) COMPENSATION IN CASE OF LIVESTOCK LOSSES
Recognizing the economic harm wolf/bear depredation can have on domestic livestock is essential. Farmers who lose livestock or beehives because of a predator must be compensated. Compensation is normally paid after inspection and confirmation by specifically trained personnel about the nature of the damage or of the killing.
6) CONSTANT MONITORING
The population of predators must be constantly monitored and kept under control, not only from a numerical point of view. It is important to be always aware of the health conditions of the local population and of any atypical behavior. There are countries where, for example, the scarcity of natural preys results in wolves feeding on livestock and rubbish dumps: if not addressed, a problem of this kind exerts extreme and unjust pressure on the local community. In Romania sheep are the first food source for wolves (64%). If we consider that in the country there are no compensation policies for farmers, it is not difficult to imagine the situation with which they have to cope.
7) LISTENING TO THE RESIDENTS
One of the most important collateral problems in the predator management is sometimes the distance between the lawmakers and the people who actually live the problem in their daily life. This distance, be it real or just perceived, leads the local community to feel neglected and sometimes entitled to take justice into their own hands (normally through illegal killings, like in Finland). It is important to develop participatory processes and shared interventions to avoid that decisional and geographical isolation produce disasters instead of models.
ATTACKS TO HUMANS
In today's Europe, the encounters between humans and these predators are rare and almost always end with the retreat of the latter.
In Europe, in the last 50 years the wolf fatal attacks not due to rabies (which has always been the main cause of aggression), were 4. In Italy, after the Second World War and the eradication of rabies, no fatalities has been registered.
There were 36 fatal bear attacks throughout Europe over the last 100 years.
WOLVES ARE DANGEROUS: PERCEPTION OR REALITY?
The wolf is perceived as a very dangerous animal and the fear of the wolf is more common and widespread than the one of other animals. Nonetheless, as shown in the NINA’s research mentioned at point 2), very rarely the wolf demonstrates aggressiveness in the encounter with humans (and the number of serious accidents demonstrates it).
Furthermore, when accidents attributed to wolves are duly investigated, they result to be often misinterpretations.
The real problem is therefore the attacks on livestock. Adequate information and education can contribute to improve the perception that local communities have of the wolf and facilitate the management of the coexistence.
THE ROLE OF HUNTERS
Hunters are those who are more likely to encounter wolves and bears, because they beat the same tracks in search of prey. There is no love lost between them, firstly because they are antagonist, secondly because sometimes hunters lose their dogs in case they come into conflict with a larger predator and the hunter is not close enough to intervene.
For some hunters, both wolves and bears are extremely desirable trophies and are therefore killed on purpose and not in self-defense.
The 80% of hunting crimes in Italy is perpetrated by licensed hunters: 20% of these crimes involve particularly protected species.
In Europe, wolf hunting is legal only when authorized by governments to keep their number under control if their presence is not tolerated or considered problematic. However, researches demonstrate that legal culling increases poaching, because sends a signal to the public that killing wolves is acceptable, or that anti-poaching laws will not be enforced.
It must be added that rarely legal culling is actually selective, even if it should be. Killing wolves randomly implies that killing the “wrong” wolf is highly probable. If the pack is left without the best hunters, the easy food sources (like livestock) will be even more appealing.
Sterilization is sometimes evaluated as a solution to keep the number of wolves under control.
It is not possible to think about conservation and wildlife protection without an efficient management master plan in place.
The shift from the anthropocentric to the biocentric outlook on nature is often a complicated and long process, but eventually rewarding for the whole ecosystem.
The development of low-impact tourism strategies that can support environmental conservation policies comes only after a careful destination management. If a certain region considers tourism as an option for its future development, it will have to take into account that tourism has implications that complicate further the operational framework. However, tourism is the perfect driver to support the financial sustainability of conservation projects, to provide education, to increase awareness and to stimulate active participation. To the benefit of all, local communities included.