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II Rewilding and Biodiversity

Bringing Large Mammals Back: Large Carnivores in Europe

Luigi Boitani and John D. C. Linnell

Abstract The last century has seen a dramatic reversal in the status of large carnivores in Europe. A suite of co-occurring factors has permitted a large-scale recovery of most populations. We currently recognise 10 populations of each species, most of which are transboundary in nature. The sizes of these populations vary from some tens to many thousand, with current estimates being around 17,000 bears, 10,000 wolves and 10,000 lynx in Europe (excluding Russia). As the situation moves from averting extinction to planning recovery it is logical to ask how far the recovery can go, and what our conservation goals should be, especially in light of the emerging rewilding discourse. For a variety of ecological, practical and strategic reasons, it seems unlikely that restoring “wilderness” or “natural ecological processes” (in the sense that human activity and influence are excluded) will serve as general models for large carnivore conservation on a large scale. We suggest a focus on developing a “coexistence” model that aims to create a sustainable interaction between humans and large carnivores by encouraging conservation of these species in very large areas of the European landscape, encouraging the development of a wide range of ecological processes, including predation and scavenging, while accepting that human influence on all trophic levels is pervasive, legitimate, necessary and often even desirable. This constitutes a desire to create a new form of relationship between humans and wildness that has never existed before, and therefore does not fall within the conventional meanings of the rewilding paradigm.

Keywords Large carnivores Coexistence Natural ecological process Herbivory

Social tolerance Human impact


Large mammals are often regarded as flagship species of wild areas and the paradigm of wilderness untouched by, or at least relatively separated from, human activities (Ray et al. 2005). This is especially true for large carnivores. This view largely stems from the historic processes of direct human persecution and indirect habitat change that gradually reduced their presence in human-dominated landscapes such that they only persisted in the residual areas with little or no human activity. As a consequence, the view of large carnivores as beasts of the wilderness became consolidated, particularly in North America (Boitani 1995). Since Europe is home to more than 500 million people and lacks extensive pristine, uninhabited land areas and large protected areas with spectacular aggregations of large mammals, it might appear to have little to offer for large carnivore conservation. However, nothing could be further from the truth. In the last few decades, changes in the socio-economic settings and people's values concerning nature and biodiversity have paved the way for new opportunities for large carnivores. As the situation develops a new conservation paradigm is slowly emerging based on the premises of coexistence instead of exclusion.

In this essay, we firstly describe the current status and trends of the large carnivores in Europe and examine the main causes of the recent increase in numbers and range. Second, we discuss the available opportunities to sustain the positive trends and the challenges in driving the process toward a new balance between carnivores and human activities. Thirdly, we use the insights coming from large carnivore conservation to offer our views on the social and ecological implications of managing the “rewilding” of Europe. In Europe, five carnivore species have been traditionally considered as “large carnivores”, but in this essay we will focus on the three most important ones, the grey wolf ( Canis lupus), the bear ( Ursus arctos) and the Eurasian lynx ( Lynx lynx); the other two, the Iberian lynx ( Lynx pardina) and the wolverine ( Gulo gulo) are restricted to small areas, respectively in southern Iberia and northern Fennoscandia, and are associated with very specific management issues.

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