Posted on 23 February 1999
While the perilous plight of Asia's tigers is widely known, the threats facing Europe's own top predators has received much less publicity. The Iberian lynx of Spain and Portugal, the world's most endangered cat species, faces imminent extinction, while wolves face a hostile reception where they return to parts of western Europe that eradicated them a century ago. Whether or not they can survive there rests entirely in human hands.
WWF's Campaign for Europe's Carnivores aims to challenge ancient prejudices and help fund projects that support the peaceful coexistence of people and predators. With wolves beginning to return to old haunts in France, Switzerland and even Germany, and continuing human-animal conflict involving wolverine, lynx and brown bear in other areas, the need to secure public support for carnivores is urgent.
"We are at a crucial time in history," said William Pratesi, WWF Coordinator for the Large Carnivore Initiative For Europe. "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."
Europe's top predators have been vilified and persecuted for centuries. Human attitudes, inspired partly by myths, children's stories and exaggerated fears of the danger predators pose to human life as well as livestock, represent the greatest threat to the survival of large carnivores in Europe.
"Large carnivores illicit strong emotions and their management is more socio-political than biological," explained WWF Consultant Dr Alistair Bath, a specialist on the human dimensions in wildlife management. "The large carnivores think there is enough space for them to return to many areas in Europe. The key element to their recovery is whether people are willing to share that space with them."
Habitat destruction and the loss of prey species have contributed to the decline of large carnivores in Europe. Today they occupy fragmented landscapes, dominated by humans. The Iberian lynx is now confined to about 10 isolated pockets of Spain and Portugal where the world population has slumped to less than 800.
"If current trends continue, the Iberian lynx will probably disappear in the first half of the 21st Century," warned lynx expert Pablo Ferreras of the Estacion Biologica de Doqana in Spain. "This would be a huge embarrassment for Europe, since it would represent the world's first well-documented extinction of a wild felid species."
Elsewhere relict brown bear populations are dangerously small and highly fragmented in southern, central and western Europe. Like wolves, they also face a hostile reception wherever they move into new areas. Wolverines - large members of the weasel family - have been reduced to a few hundred in remote areas of Scandinavia. The Eurasian lynx has disappeared from much of its original habitat and where populations are starting to recover, conflict with people remains a major stumbling block.
WWF's strong European network is working across international boundaries to help secure pan-European co-operation for carnivore populations and to gain public acceptance of their important place in Europe's natural heritage.
For more information, or a copy of WWF-UK's new report Europe's Carnivores: A Conservation Challenge for the 21st Century , television pictures on Beta SP of wolves, bears, Iberian lynx, wolverine and otter; or to arrange interviews, please call the WWF-UK Press Office on +44 1483 426444.
1. The Large Carnivore Initiative For Europe is a collaboration between, WWF, partner organisations and species experts across Europe, whose mission is to "maintain and restore, in co-existence with people, viable populations of large carnivores as an integral part of ecosystems and landscapes across Europe." It focuses on five species - the wolf, brown bear, Eurasian lynx, Iberian lynx and wolverine.
2. WWF-UK's campaign for Europe's Carnivores aims to promote public support for carnivores and raise funds for their conservation. Projects to benefit include the Carpathian Large Carnivore project in Romania, home to dense populations of wolves, bears and Eurasian lynxes that live in close proximity to large numbers of people and sheep. The project is designed to create a model area to show how people and carnivores can coexist.
3. All large terrestrial carnivores have been eradicated from the UK. Concern remains for some of the medium sized species that have been reduced to small remnant populations. The wild cat of Scotland is endangered. Polecats face renewed conflict with people where they attempt to move east from Wales. Otters are beginning a slow recovery after decades of decline.
4. Large carnivores are part of European culture and appear regularly in myth and literature, just as tigers play an important part in Asian cultures. Even today, many children grow up on stories such as Little Red Riding Hood, Goldilocks, and Three Little Pigs, which all portray carnivores in a negative light.