Last week the kids and I found a wolverine track in the snow, just a few kilometres from my home. The sun was shining, the air was crisp and life suddenly felt different. The silent forest around me became transformed, from a bland backdrop to a dynamic living ecosystem. The encounter was unexpected, a rarity, a treasure; something that transformed just another family outing to “the day we saw that wolverine track”.
As both a scientist and a conservationist I have worked with large carnivore related issues for almost my entire professional life. Studying their prey (roe deer), studying the predator species themselves (including Eurasian lynx, leopards and jaguars), and studying their interactions with people, has taken me to study sites all across Europe, from the Barents Sea to the Adriatic, and beyond to India and Brazil.
Large carnivores are not an easy career path. For the scientist part of me, they are difficult and expensive to study. Working on rodents would certainly have allowed me to gain more scientific kudos. For the conservationist part of me they are associated with a constant round of challenges and conflicts. So why do I do it?
Fascination is clearly a major part of the answer. The more I learn about how these animals live their lives the more I appreciate them as masterpieces of evolutionary adaptation. They also trigger some emotional responses deep inside.
The combination of grace, power, silence, resilience and adaptability in such a beautiful packaging can only induce a sense of awe. These animals demand your respect simply by looking at you. They are also truly wild.
Completely independent of us humans, unapologetic about their actions, their persistence in our modern urbanised world provides a refreshing reminder that there is still some wildness left in nature. Predators above all other species remind us that nature is still something of a dynamic process and made up of interactions rather than just being static scenery. The idea that nature is something bigger than us humans and that it still not tamed provides a refreshing tonic to human arrogance and egotism.
However, many of these characteristics are also the source of conflicts. The sources of my fascination can easily become another person’s frustrations or fears. Predators don’t always make easy neighbours, and many rural people living in their proximity experience very real problems.
Working for the conservation of these species involves confronting these conflicts and trying to find ways to minimise them. And the challenge of responding to this is probably my second motivation to work with these species. The challenge is even greater considering that most of my work is in Europe. Europe is a crowded continent, with 500 million people, and no true wilderness areas. There is no “over there” with more space. If we want large carnivores, they have to be “here”; in the same landscape where people live, work and play.
Integrating these species into the fabric of our modern landscape is probably the greatest example of land sharing that has ever been attempted in conservation. The Large Carnivore Initiative for Europe, of which I am a member, is trying to find ways to facilitate this integration of large carnivores into multi-use landscapes that simultaneously provide for the needs of human food production, recreation and biodiversity conservation.
And judging by present trends, the carnivores are succeeding, although there is still a long way to go. Many conflicts persist, and some are escalating. Finding solutions is going to require patience, ingenuity and a willingness to make compromises. Although research can provide some guidance, there is going to be a lot of trial and error because quite simply this experiment has never been tried before. For almost the entirety of human history we have been at a state of war with these species. We are now trying to find a way to coexist with them, although nobody knows how this coexistence is going to look in the end. Who could resist being a part of such a process?