The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Anthropocene

Controversies and paradoxes about nature conservation in Europe

Planet Earth, Europe, September 2017: a strictly protected European bison (Bison bonasus), one out of only around 4,000 individuals that exist today, was sentenced to death and shot. The story quickly swept around the media: a bison wandered over from Poland – where the species live in natural conditions without fences – to Germany, where it ended up being killed by authorities. Why? Because it was claimed to be a “danger to the public.”

‘True nature’ is dirty, muddy, biting and yes, it should be dangerous. It should not be a place where we go jogging to beat work-stress, or an environment to walk the dog in to escape from family.

However, by today, our concept of ‘nature’ is something like the closest park in the neighborhood. We regard it as a place where we can get some fresh air without making our expensive hiking shoes messy and from where we sufficiently eliminated the mosquitos that could treacherously bite us.

Modern nature is safe and criss-crossed by tourist paths.

It is certainly not something dirty, muddy, biting and dangerous. But this modern nature is not the nature where ecosystems function well, and not the one that will make it possible for us humans to live on planet Earth for another couple of centuries.

“Something fundamentally wrong…”

Shooting a European bison in the 21st century is only the tip of the iceberg. Over the last centuries, we made a ‘good’ job on turning the original natural habitats into ones that directly serve our human world. We have been hunting, keeping livestock, clearing forests and managing crop fields; we have been overexploiting natural sources and by now, as they are close to their last breath, we try to figure out more and more aggressive methods to exploit even more. The WWF reports an overall 52% decline in biodiversity between 1970 and 2010. We have such an impact on Earth that scientists proposed declaring the dawn of a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene.

Europe today — the index is based on human population density, human land use, infrastructure and human access (e.g railroads, navigable rivers). You can play around with the map (and be shocked) here. Image: Wildlife Conservation Society & Columbia University

One of the most severe consequences of this human impact, although largely unreported, is the decline of native large herbivore fauna all around the world – in Europe too.

Our continent used to be home to a variety of large herbivore species, such as the aurochs (the wild cattle), several wild horse species, the European bison and the elk. From these herbivores, the elk (Alces alces) was suppressed by human activities from its original Pan-European range to only the northernmost parts of Europe. The aurochs (Bos primigenius) became completely extinct. (By today, genetic backbreeding has made it possible to ‘substitute’ the wild cattle with a phenotypically similar but genetically different animal, the Heck-cattle.) Both the European bison (Bison bonasus) and the wild horses (Equus ferus) became extinct in the wild. In the case of the bison, only 54 individuals survived in zoological gardens, and only after great effort could the slowly growing population be reintroduced to the wild in a national park in Poland.

In the case of horses, even though there used to be an array of wild subspecies widespread throughout Europe, only one, the Przewalski’s horse (Equus ferus Przewalskii) has survived. (However, a recent study doubts that the Przewalski’s horse is a true descendant of wild ancestors.) The situation was basically the same as in the case of the bison: today’s endangered Przewalski’s horse populations of about altogether 2,000 horses are descendants of only 12 individuals.

Przewalski’s horses in the Cévennes, France — a fenced area where horses can ‘practice’ free life before being reintroduced to Mongolia. Photo: Lilla Lovász

But efforts to reintroduce these horses to the wild is only taking place in Mongolia, while in Europe, horses live only in fenced areas.

So, with the exception of red deer, European landscapes are now almost completely devoid of free-roaming wild large herbivores.

Why is this a problem? Large herbivores are major drivers of ecosystems; their presence regulates the dynamics of vegetation by controlling the spread of forests and keeping meadows open, and thereby establishing a wide range of habitats for diverse flora and fauna (see e.g. the book by Dutch ecologist Frans Vera entitled Grazing Ecology and Forest History). They have facilitating and controlling effects on every trophic level of the ecosystem, which is a prerequisite for functionality. Not only that, what are known as ecosystem services – such as pollination, waste decomposition, water purification, etc. – only operate if there is a functioning ecosystem in the background with a variety of species living in natural habitats.

Controversies start at the species level

Horse and cattle species co-evolved, filling up a variety of niches. By using different feeding strategies, they also influence their environment differently. They are the most important regulators of European ecosystems simply due to their large size compared to other smaller herbivores. It would be thus logical to target ecosystem restoration by concentrating first on the reintroduction of both horses and cattle as complementary species.

But the debate already begins at the ‘species level’. Agronomists argue that domestic herbivores could fulfil the ecological role of the now extinct species while also securing traditional jobs in agriculture. So, why not just advocating extensive farming?

The main problem with domestic herbivores is that they are domestic, comes the reply from ecologists. These animals have been bred for milk and meat production over centuries, so it is not surprising that their ability to survive without human intervention has largely declined. To keep them healthy, they are treated against diseases and parasites with an array of medication that can destroy the soil invertebrate fauna. And, even if they are kept outside, they – also by law in some countries – have to be fed during winter, which prevents the most important disturbance on the ecosystem. In contrast, wild species, like the bison and wild horses debark young trees and uproot wood saplings during wintertime, contributing to the natural suppression of tree and bush encroachment.

Traditional, extensive agriculture with domestic animals is thus important for maintaining cultural landscapes, which is of major concern too. But this is something different to nature protection, as for example L.M. Navarro and H.Q. Pereira argue.

The Rewilding debate

The concept of ‘rewilding’ is the passive management of ecological succession with the goal of restoring natural ecosystems, which is to be achieved by reintroducing free-roaming wild large herbivores to remote landscapes throughout Europe and reducing the human control over them. The rewilding movement targets areas that used to be agricultural fields but became available to nature conservation due to land abandonment caused by socio-economic changes. The objective is not to stop at the level of herbivores, since a self-sustaining ecosystem is not complete without the top of the trophic pyramid: predators. (For more details see the website of the Rewilding Europe group or the freely accessible book Rewilding European Landscapes.)

But not every part of Europe works the same way. The wilderness of the Croatian Velebit mountains is quite different to Central European landscapes.

Here, around Switzerland, Germany and France, almost every piece of land is managed in one way or another, and crossed by roads and railways. A fear from bison wandering on highways and wolves eating sheep serve as a reason to panic. Bureaucracy and opposing interests make it very difficult — if not impossible — to move beyond the debate being fought over the idea of rewilding.

Just think about the fierce opposition that a recently initiated bison reintroduction project faces in Switzerland: landowners instantly raised red flags against the arrival of the animals. They fear that the 20 bison planned to be released in the Jura would not find enough food, and thus could cause damage on the farmers’ crops. “Bison? Utopia,” they say.

How about getting used to being surrounded by wild animals? Bison in Kraansvlak, Netherlands, are in a fenced enclosure, but a trail crosses the site, so tourists could potentially bump into the animals. Photo: Lilla Lovász

“Maybe we really will have to start with small enclosures. Not because we have to accustom the bison to the landscape, but because we have to accustom the human being to the bison” – says one of the initiators of the bison-back-to-Switzerland program.

It will most likely not be an easy task to change people’s feelings about wild animals being ‘dangerous beasts’ to regarding them as ‘part of life’.

But some projects, for example the bison-trail in the Netherlands, show that it is not impossible.

The ‘lawn-mowers’ vs ‘ecosystem-engineers’ controversy

An intermediate solution towards reintroducing real wild herbivores is the idea of the so-called natural grazing with semi-wild, primitive horse and cattle breeds (e.g Konik or Sorraira horses or Exmoor ponies, and Highland or Galloway cattle). As Frans Vera reasoned decades ago, these animals, being closer to the once existing species’ wild traits, are able to self-sustainability; they don’t require winter feeding or medication. They are therefore likely to be able to contribute to ecosystem restoration.

There are some – already existing – nature protection areas around Central Europe that could serve as ecosystem restoration sites. At these areas, the encroachment of trees and bushes causes the management team headaches anyway, so natural lawn mowers are generally welcome. However, the ‘lawn mower’ idea regards large herbivores as forms of cheap labour that do the job of tractors but without petrol, and not as key parts of the ecosystem. The presence of a rare orchid species for example might raise the idea of setting up exclosures to protect the plant from herbivore trampling. From the ecologist’s point of view though, it is not specifically the individual orchids that have to be protected but the entire ecosystem around the plant.

A herbivore is not a lawn mower but part of a self-governing system that will make it possible also for the orchid to thrive.

Our research group – associated with the University of Basel and the Research Station Petite Camargue Alsacienne – currently works on a renaturation project on the Rhine Island. An area surrounded by the Old Rhine and the Rhine Canal only about 10 kilometres from Basel, formerly covered by corn fields, was recently ploughed and given back to nature. The idea of the natural grazing project on the island is to let the area ‘managed’ by semi-wild Konik horses and Highland cattle.

The Rhine Island would soon not be an open area without “management” by grazers. Photo: Electricité de France, Petite Camargue Alsacienne

Our research investigates the niche differentiation of these large herbivores by looking at the dynamism of their space use and their joint effect on the environment. These animals do not depend on humans, thus, are suitable candidates to be real ecosystem engineers – they may successfully suppress natural succession on the Rhine Island. Conservationists of the nature reserve understood that the managers’ role now is not caring for the animals as pet species by feeding and regularly shepherding them, but caring for the project to be self-governing. Nevertheless, questions of how much to interfere if there happen to be problems, how much we humans are responsible for animals that we fence off, and how close tourists should be allowed to get to the –ideally – wild and dangerous animals are topics of ongoing discussions.

The Reconciliation paradox

Reconciliation of the human world and nature seems to be a desired solution by many conservationists around the world, but it is again something that everybody sees differently.

We want to regard ourselves as part of nature – but only as long as it neatly fits within our civilized world, as long as grass is freshly cut and we can feed squirrels from our hands.

At the same time, we regard bison roaming freely around us as ‘danger’ and we cry for ‘predator-free zones’ if wolves eat our sheep, because they don’t fit into the concept of modern nature.

“Don’t panic!”

“The worst thing that will probably happen – in fact is already well underway – is not energy depletion, economic collapse, conventional war, or the expansion of totalitarian governments. As terrible as these catastrophes would be for us, they can be repaired in a few generations. The one process now going on that will take millions of years to correct is loss of genetic and species diversity by the destruction of natural habitats. This is the folly our descendants are least likely to forgive us,” said Edward O. Wilson way back in 1984.

More than 30 years have since passed and the problem is not that there are no solutions. There are actually too many. While there is a constant ideological debate among scientists, conservation managers and the public as to whether or not traditional farming or rewilding is best for biodiversity, whether or not nature protection areas should be managed or let to be self-governing and whether or not humans should be part of nature, there is not much time and energy left for actually doing something.

This would be a reason to panic…

Image from the film adaptation of Douglas Adams’ book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy: Last seconds before the Earth is demolished.

But we weren’t meant to put paper bags over our heads, lie down and wait for the Vogon fleet to demolish our planet. We could, for once in Earth’s lifetime, come to an agreement.

For discussions on the topic or comments about the article I thank Roel van Klink,Tobias Roth and Valentin Amrhein.

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