Repopulating Europe – the megafaunal way

Introduction

On 3 August 2021, the Journal of Environmental Law published the article “Megafauna Rewilding: Addressing Amnesia and Myopia in Biodiversity Law and Policy” by Prof Arie Trouwborst (here). In this article, Trouwborst examines the question on how or if international law and policy allows for a rewilding of areas in which megafauna has gone extinct. While this, at first, sounds like a very logical and reasonable issue, when reading Trouwborst’s article it becomes clear rather quickly that his is an issue that might cause some tremendous problems. For he does not deal with species that have gone extinct in the last 100 years or so, but rather with species that have gone extinct hundreds, if not thousands of years ago.

In this post, I hypothise on this possibility. How would, say, the German society react if wolves or elephants were to roam German lands in large numbers again?

Abundance

When I grew up in the 1980s, ‘the wolf’ was in essence an animal from the distant past and from fairy tales. The howling of a wolf would obviously never be anything that I would encounter in a lifetime in northern-central Lower Saxony in Germany. Less than three decades later, the picture has shifted significantly: nowadays, we find 32 packs of wolves in Lower Saxony alone, three of which are in the immediate vicinity of where I spent my childhood. In Germany, we currently count 113 packs of wolves and several single animals. Most of these packs, which comprise up to 10 animals, occur in the northern half of Germany. Since the year 2000, the wolf has made a comeback to Germany!

Fig. 1: Wolfpack Territories in Lower Saxony, Germany © Nikolas Sellheim, 2021

But what about other megafauna that used to roam this area? Trouwborst notes that, depending on how long you go back in time, each continent, except for Australia and Antarctica, had an abundant elephant(-like) population: elephants, mammoths, mastodons, gomphotheres and stegodonts were common encounters for early humans. Or to put it differently, it is rather unnormal in world history that elephants can’t be found on most continents. And this, as Trouwborst shows, is a result of human expansion and evolution.

While these elephant(-like) species are now long gone, it is rather unlikely that a Jurassic Park-style regrowing of these species would occur (or would ever be successful). But, it is imaginable that proxy species would be re-settled to the original habitats of their distant forebears. So, imagine a world in which the restoration of the natural environment has gone so far that African elephants (Loxodonta africana) were living in central Europe again in order for them to occupy the ecological niche that their early relatives, such as the straight-tusked elephant (Palaeoloxodon antiquus), held. It appears more than likely that an outcry would go through German society: on the one hand, environmentalists would hail the elephants’ re-occurrence as the manifestation of the return to the natural state of the environment. On the other hand, farmers and other land users would condemn the elephant as detrimental to the longevity of crops and other land uses. It does not appear unlikely that the poaching of elephants would become a common issue.

Encounters

I dare to say the above because in 2006 a brown bear (Ursus arctos) crossed into Germany from Trentino in Italy. This was the first brown bear on German soil for more than 170 years. Yet, instead of enabling the bear to roam freely, it was considered a ‘problem bear’ because it engaged in surplus killing – killing prey beyond that the bear consumed – and came dangerously close to humans. As a consequence, it was killed shortly after with the help of Finnish bear hunters.

Imagine wild elephants in the forests of Germany. Imagine a soaring wolf population. Imagine bears spreading across these lands. Imagining this, I inevitably come to think of the last Conference of the Parties (CoP) of CITES in August 2019. During the CoP I regularly had breakfast with a delegate from a southern African country who, in one conversation, said to me: “For you Europeans it is almost impossible to imagine what it is like to live in a country like ours. We face danger everywhere. You go for a swim, you need to look our for hippos. Your kids go outside, they need to pay attention to lions and other wild cats. You go on the fields, you should be prepared that they have been trampled down by elephants.” He said this because he was under the impression that dangerous animals are being romanticised by Europeans.

Probably the best example – and I do agree with him – is, after all, the wolf. For some, this animal is one of the most iconic animals, representing wildness, mystery and wisdom. For others, wolves are predators that kill livestock and threaten humans. Earlier this year, when taking her dog for a walk, a woman from Lower Saxony encountered a wolf and managed to film this incident (here). I personally have never seen a wolf in the wild, but I could imagine that I would not consider it a wise and mysterious animal, but instead a potential threat to my wellbeing. The same would probably account for an elephant.

A Future of the Past?

This leaves the question: what purposes would a rewilding of megafauna in Germany or Europe serve? Is this what is meant by ‘restoration’? While this would certainly be an interesting thought experiment, it is difficult to imagine in reality. While Prof Trouwborst examines the legal obstacles related to this rewilding, a plethora of social and societal problems would arise if this were to happen. And I cannot imagine that this would contribute to overcoming the divide between conservationists and those favouring the sustainable use-principle or between environmentalists and agriculturalists. Probably to the contrary. So, in the end it is probably a good idea to leave this in the realm of imagination and to focus on restoration of the natural environment as it was in the more recent history.

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