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Lessons from Wild Europe

India can learn a lot from the Continent on conservation of wild species and spaces

Rajat Ghai 

Rajat Ghai

On May 17, 2014, seventeen big, bellowing cattle-like beasts were released into the forests of the Tarcu mountains in the southern part of eastern Europe’s famous Carpathian range in Romania, after being ritually blessed by an Orthodox Christian priest in the village of Armenis. The release was carried out by volunteers of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) and an NGO called ‘Rewilding Europe.’

The event is significant in the conservation history of the European continent as it marks the return of Europe’s largest herbivore, the European Wood Bison or the Wisent (Bison Bosanus) in the Tarcu mountains 200 years after they disappeared from there due to rampant poaching.

Indeed, Europe has been in the conservation spotlight throughout the last decade and before it for the right reasons, for a change. After centuries of human exploitation of the Continent and its resources, often at the cost of other species, recent reports suggest that the wild denizens of Europe are making a comeback, not just populating the areas from where they were once extirpated, but even colonizing newer zones.

To just give a few examples here, let me enumerate the wonderful ‘comeback stories’ of four of Europe’s most iconic species.

Let us start with the bison to whom I alluded to in the beginning. The wisent, an Old World relative of the more famous American Bison, has roamed the lowland forests of Europe since ancient times. But as Europe passed from the Middle Ages to the modern era, the human population increased and so did poaching and hunting of the wisent. The wisent was wiped out in the wild in 1927, when the last specimen died in the northern Caucasus.

In the years that followed, conservationists fell back on 54 captive individuals, from whom, a whole new population was developed. This new population is now being trans-located and re-introduced to areas that were once part of the bison’s former range. Today, the bison number 5,000 individuals across Europe and like the latest development in the Tarcu mountains, more re-introductions are in the works.

Another large herbivore, the Eurasian Elk or Alces Alces (known as Moose in North America) has also shown a positive comeback of sorts. Decimated in the 19th century due to over-exploitation, economic hardship and political instability, this largest member of the deer family or Cervidae has come back remarkably, with its current population standing at nearly 720,000 individuals (2012 estimate). That is nearly double of what its population was in the 1960s. It continues to strongly expand westward, into areas of its former range.

Also consider, the case of two of Europe’s largest carnivores, the Brown Bear (Ursus Arctos) and the Grey Wolf (Canis Lupus). The wolf, as was reported in 2012, is now being reported near big cities of western Europe, in countries such as Germany, France, the Netherlands and Belgium, areas where it was extirpated 2-3 centuries ago because of human anger over livestock killing or just plain, primal fear. The brown bear too is making a comeback, with its populations increasing in areas where it is extant.

In each of these four cases, various factors have been factored in by experts as reasons for the species’ comeback. The most important is legal protection and Europe has an impressive number of laws at the local, national and EU levels for the protection of species. Then of course, there are individual reasons. For instance, in the case of the bison, intensive breeding, trans-location and re-introduction has saved the species from the very jaws of extinction, though with a poor gene pool. In case of the elk, hunting techniques have had the largest impact, with hunters being made to change their hunting methods (like not shooting hinds and calves for instance). In the cases of the wolf and the bear, the most important factor has been taking the local community into confidence. Having such large, opportunistic and dangerous predators in such close proximity, it was vital in the first place that local farmers and livestock herders were reassured that their livelihoods and sources of income would not be affected by wolves and bears. Economic compensation and mitigation has been one way of reassuring them. The other important factor is convincing urban city-dwellers, who have little or no contact with such species, about the importance of conserving them. In short, education and communication to highlight the cause of wolves and bears also plays its part.

Another major aspect, which experts have identified is the demographic decline of rural Europe. Since the last century, rural communities in the Continent are diminishing fast as more and more people move to urban areas. This has resulted in abandonment of land previously used for agriculture and animal husbandry. Such land has been quickly recolonized by animals and they are thriving now in such places.

And not that these four animals are the only ones. Rewilding Europe’s 2012-2013 report enumerates at least 18 mammal species and 19 bird species that have made successful returns in the Continent.

Europe can be a key model of sorts for Indian conservationists and government authorities. That is because it and India share major similarities. Both are densely populated in the first place, and India is at the stage where Europe was once, many years ago, in that it is rapidly developing and utilizing more and more resources at the cost of wild species.

But whereas Europe seems to have taken the management of its wild spaces very seriously, India seems to have faltered. Just compare ourselves with them. Our charismatic species, both herbivores and carnivores are struggling to hold on to their edens as human pressure and populations increase every year. Predators like the Royal Bengal Tiger, the Asiatic Lion and the Indian Leopard, all are examples. As are big herbivores like the Indian Elephant, the Indian Rhinoceros and the Asiatic Wild Buffalo. Whereas European cervids like the Red Deer are flourishing, their last Indian cousins, the Hangul of Kashmir are on the brink of extinction.

And now, with the election of Narendra Modi as prime minister, could things only get worse? For one, Mr. Modi is known for his true-blue industry-friendly, big business approach. Worse, he has not spoken a word on what his environmental policy would be like since taking over (except the plan to clean the Ganges). What path he and his government take in the coming five years, is anybody’s guess.

True, Europe certainly is not a land of bliss for its wild creatures. Truth to tell, it has many challenges of its own. But what it has demonstrated with its recent successes is that human-nature relationships can be managed, that it is indeed possible. We in India are still searching for that elusive answer to human-animal conflicts. Maybe, Mr. Modi and his team could do well to take some lessons from their European counterparts so that not just India’s people, but its wild residents too can live in peace and good health.

First Published: Wed, May 21 2014. 14:59 IST