Conflict Exploration: European Wolves

The return of the ‘Beast’?

Welcome to our third exploration. Here we explore ‘wicked’ conservation conflicts by inviting stakeholders and experts to share their perspective with us.

Photo credit: Jana Malin ( https://mythoswolf.com/)

The case study

We are focusing on a hot topic in Europe: the return of the wolves. While there have been heated debates and new regulations in Germany, we wondered:

(1) Why do people struggle so much with the return of wolves?

(2) Should killing of wolves in Germany be allowed/legal?

(3) What would be the best first step(s) to address this conflict in Germany or other countries in similar situations?

Here, we asked three experts in their fields (Human Dimensions, Wildlife Research and Moral Philosophy) about their perspectives.


Human Dimensions: Gabriela Fleury

“First, the history of the perception of wolves, or any other predator, needs to be understood”

Gabriela Fleury is a Human Dimensions researcher currently based in the US. She completed her undergraduate thesis on lion and livestock conflict in the Amboseli region of Kenya and her Master’s degree at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. After university, Gabriela spent two years assisting on-the-ground NGOs Action for Cheetahs in Kenya and Big Life Foundation in Kenya with human-wildlife conflict research, data analysis and grant-writing, and leading Cheetah Conservation Fund’s human dimensions research team in north-central Namibia. Her speciality within human dimensions is the mitigation of predator and livestock conflict in Eastern and Southern Africa.

(1) Why do you think that people struggle so much with the return of wolves?

I think that wolves, especially to livestock producers, represent a threat to their livelihoods and may even represent a perception of threat to their families’ safety. In terms of the former, wolves certainly have been implicated in the loss of livestock elsewhere in the world, such as the United States, so it is certainly understandable that there would be a widespread concern. Although wolves rarely attack people, the reintroduction of a large predator into the ecosystem that has such negative cultural connotations (i.e. from fairytales and mythology) must have an impact on peoples’ state of mind. Wolves may be disproportionately thought to be a threat to human life and to livestock due to this longstanding negative perception.

(2) Should killing of wolves in Germany be allowed/legal?

The killing of wolves in Germany should not be legalized, as the reintroduction of wolves can help stabilize Germany’s forest ecosystems. However, livestock producers must be worked with intensively to determine methods to help reduce losses of livestock to wolves and through the reduction of losses, to help build a tolerance to wolves. This will not be an overnight process and will have to involve boots on the ground and active nonlethal interventions to reduce losses, not only environmental education techniques.

(3) What would be the best first step(s) to address this conflict in Germany or other countries with similar situations?

First, the history of the perception of wolves, or any other predator, needs to be understood, including accuracies of perception and misinformation. Education is important to correct misperceptions, but a promise and a follow-through of action to reduce any resulting human-wildlife conflict due to predator reintroduction will be essential to allow this action to be sustainable in the long term.

Photo credit: Jana Malin

Wildlife Research: Hannes König

“Many politicians welcome the return of wolves to attract voters while neglecting real challenges from an economic, social and ecological — holistic perspective”

Hannes König (PhD natural science, MSc agricultural sciences, Dipl-Ing. Forestry), Head of Junior Research Group at ZALF working on human-wildlife conflicts & coexistence, and ecosystem (dis)services assessment; with a current focus on wolves, wild boar, crane, moose, and European bison.

(1) Why do you think that people struggle so much with the return of wolves?

People struggle in different ways with the return of wolves in Germany. In central Europe, and in Germany in particular, people associate many negative issues with wolves for several reasons: a sole bad characterisation of wolves in many well-known fairy tales, myths, religion, but also real experiences due to livestock losses with possible substantial impact on farm livelihoods in former times and nowadays, and probably also the fact that wolves are mainly nocturnal and people fear what they cannot see. But struggling can also be interpreted in a way that many people nowadays “struggle” to support wolves providing habitat and the right to exist. At this point, it needs to be said, that a key aspect of this “struggle” refers to opposing preferences and opinions between different stakeholder groups of people. The wolf itself does not struggle with its return as it is well adapted to our landscapes.

(2) Should killing of wolves in Germany be allowed/legal?

No. We have clear regulations under which the wolves are a strictly protected species. If the return is developing successfully in terms of establishing a minimum viable population, this needs to be monitored systematically and analysed from a robust research point of view. Only then, an adaptation of current regulations, i.e. EU laws (FFH) and national nature conservation acts can be approached in a responsible and sustainable manner. The problem is that decisions on this topic are highly political and reactive. For practical reasons — as we do face wolves induced livestock killings, lethal control should be allowed if approved by authorities and if no alternative options would solve the problem at the individual case (e.g. in case implementing effective damage preventive measures would not work for some reasons).

(3) What would be the best first step(s) to address this conflict in Germany or other countries with similar situations?

We need robust and reliably monitoring data to assess and evaluate the spatiotemporal population development of wolves and its interaction with people, i.e. mainly livestock farmers. We also need to systematically document and analyse livestock predation events in a comprehensive way by not only considering direct losses in monetary terms — but also transaction- and opportunity costs farmers will have if coping with a new situation. If our laws and society want the wolf to be protected, we need to compensate those stakeholder groups (farmers) who face additional costs. However, the situation we observe at the moment is — that compensation measures and subsidies do not work effectively as they could: many politicians welcome the return of wolves to attract voters while neglecting real challenges from an economic, social and ecological — holistic perspective.

Therefore, we also need to find communication modes that help people to understand all the potential benefits and risks wolves will have on our ecosystems. Yet, there is, for example, little knowledge about the potential positive effects of having back a mega predator on top of the trophic cascade that could help stabilizing ecosystems in many ways (i.e. reducing high densities of wild boar and roe deer in support of reducing economic losses at farm- and forest levels)”.

Photo credit: Jana Malin

Moral Philosophy: Marc Bekoff

“Each and every being has inherent value and cannot be dismissed as an object or metric who can be traded off”

Professor Bekoff is a renowned ethologist and supporter of compassionate conservation, a growing field which acknowledges the welfare of individual animals in conservation. When we approached Prof. Bekoff, he was kind enough to respond and to guide us to his blog which he wrote on the topic: ‘Killing in the name of co-existence’.

Prof. Bekoff states in this article:

“The focus on individual animals stresses that each and every being has inherent value and cannot be dismissed as an object or metric who can be traded off for the good of their own or other nonhuman species, for the good of humans, or for the good of species or populations (called “collectives”), or for biodiversity. Sentience, or the ability to feel, also is an important emotional capacity for some people, but animals who aren’t thought to be sentient or aren’t yet known to be sentient also are of concern. The focus on individuals also stresses that they’re not merely important because of their instrument value or utility — what they can do for us. Rather, because they are alive they are to be valued.”

In addition, he responded to our questions in a clear and honest way:

(1) Why do you think that people struggle so much with the return of wolves?

Because they don’t understand them and their essential role in various ecosystems and because of all the lies that are put forth by people who ‘hate’ them …

(2) Should killing of wolves in Germany be allowed/legal?

NEVER NEVER NEVER!!

(3) What would be the best first step(s) to address this conflict in Germany or other countries with similar situations?

EDUCATION EDUCATION EDUCATION and strive for respectful coexistence and stop the myths and lies that ore offered by so-called experts and media.

Photo credit: Jana Malin

Synthesis

We are very grateful to the three experts for sharing their valuable perspectives. Although the tone varied substantially, there were many similarities between the perspectives. Fairy tales, myths and the consequently ‘bad’ reputation of the wolf were highlighted as distinct contributors to this conflict. None of our consulted experts supported lethal support, although some could see it as a possibility in individual cases under special conditions.

The next steps involved several multi-disciplinary non-lethal measures. Education and communication were highlighted as important to correct misperceptions. But also, active development of (non-lethal) management interventions in human-wolf conflicts in collaboration with the livestock farmers to so decrease losses and increase tolerance. Lastly, reliable monitoring of wolf-induced losses and the gathering (and communication) of scientific knowledge on the (positive) roles wolves fulfil in ecosystems were emphasized.

Clearly, using the words of one of our experts: this will not be an overnight process.

Call for additional perspectives

We value sharing perspectives from different sides. If you have a different perspective from those shared above or you know people who have (e.g. live-stock owners in Germany) and you or they would like to share them via this platform, please contact us.

Photo credit: Jana Malin

A special thanks to Jana Malin for sharing her beautiful photos with us.

Exploring Conservation Conflicts

Written by

Exploring various perspectives on conservation conflicts, including Conservation Biology, Moral Philosophy & Human Dimensions. Moderated by Tanja & Lysanne.

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