Ursus ante portas
Brownbear Bruno came, was seen, and conquered permanently - at least in the minds of many people. A well-aimed shot ended his life abruptly, but the resounding media echo prompts a central question: is there still enough space and tolerance in our civilization for predators and humans to live together?
They used to be there: bears, wolves and vultures – all three feared predators and competitors for human habitation and food. Slandered as child murderers and livestock robbers, the species management of our ancestors was limited to two simple maxims: kill and expel. Because of this and because of the continuous scarcity of wilderness caused by farming people, they – and many other large mammals and birds – were finally exterminated in Central Europe by the beginning of the 20th century. From then on, vicious domestic dogs created greater problems than, for example, the occasional encounter with a wild boar in the forest. Problem solved?
Not quite: The brown bears (Ursus arctos) at least lived on in what is now Slovenia until a male immigrated to Lower Austria in 1973. The shy individual animal was hardly noticed and was able to establish itself. And since the human perception of "predators" had changed in the meantime, three more bears were released into the wild in the Austrian Alps between 1989 and 1993. To date, around twenty young animals have been born in Styria and Carinthia. And the conditions for their survival are good: more and more forestry and grazing is being abandoned in large areas, the mountain forests are advancing again. The omnivorous bear benefits from the rich supply of berries and seeds and rounds off its diet with carrion or beating young animals.
After several years of peaceful coexistence between humans and bears, 1994 turned into a "problem bear year" in Austria and various animals had to be shot - perhaps because they showed little fear of humans. So-called "bear advocates" are now mediating between animals and humans in the Alpine republic as part of a bear management plan developed in 1996 and are particularly responsible for solving problems on site. One focus of the plan is dealing with trusting specimens, so that since then difficulties have mostly been clarified at regional level - so well that a revision of the plan with new priorities is planned.
In Switzerland, on the other hand, after the first appearance of a bear in Graubünden in 2005, some cantons demanded the authorization to shoot if the animal was perceived as a serious threat or even injured or killed people. As if he had guessed it, the unwelcome cross-border commuter soon trolled back to his native Italy, although he is until now protected by Swiss law and the Berne Convention for the Protection of Endangered Species and Habitats in Europe, signed in 1979. However, the Swiss have recently come up with a concept for dealing with Master Petz.
"It is important to inform the population thoroughly," says Joanna Schönenberger from WWF Switzerland. "If the wild animal is fed, it loses its innate fear of humans and also seeks out inhabited areas where it hopes to find food". This can recently be observed with Bruno, who was never officially fed, but had a number of livestock injuries on his books and was obviously showing less and less shyness of people. Would that have gone well with Bruno on you and you? No, say the experts. Sooner rather than later there would probably have been an unpleasant clash - not least because the population has long since forgotten how to deal with bears during the last 170 bear-free years and has approached the predator with frightening fearlessness and naivety.
Poor prospects for Bruno's relatives, who will certainly come from Italy or Austria. After all, the German Alps are not as deserted as large parts of Styria and Carinthia: livestock are carelessly looked after today, tourists and recreational athletes penetrate to the last untouched corners. However, bears need large territories and undisturbed places for rearing their young and for hibernating. Even shy specimens will quickly learn how easy it is to grab unattended cattle in the pasture or how delicious the contents of a hiking backpack taste - so conflicts are inevitable. As part of the magnificent natural and cultural heritage of the Alps, the thick-skinned returnees should definitely be welcome. In order to avoid a second chaos like that of Bruno, comprehensive educational work and a coherent concept in this country are urgently needed.
The opening of the iron curtain was used by another predator to return: the wolf (Canis lupus) quietly migrated back to Saxony from Poland. A military training area of the Bundeswehr in Upper Lusatia is now home to the first German wolf pack in 150 years. These wolves are true wild animals, nocturnal and with a he althy fear of humans and civilization. Nevertheless, the Saxon and Brandenburg population has mixed feelings about the new neighborhood. Hunters have already received fines for illegal kills.
The deserted and militarily guarded area of the training ground is still safe ground for Isegrim. But wolves are opportunists. "They only need two things to survive," says wolf researcher Christoph Promberger, "sufficient food and the security of not being shot down by humans." That is why young wolves in particular will try to conquer new territories. Specimens have already been spotted in a neighboring abandoned opencast mining area. The discovery of a dead wolf on the side of a road and numerous observations prove that the animals cross traffic arteries and use them to get food.
After a few incidents, the Saxony nature conservation authority is now successfully conducting intensive educational and public relations work in cooperation with wildlife biologists. Measures such as electric safety fences and livestock guard dogs almost made livestock injuries disappear. And last but not least, the positive media response offers the immigrants a real chance of survival.
In Romania, Italy and Spain, wolves already live in the middle of the cultural landscape, mostly unnoticed by humans or confused with dogs. The Italian "spaghetti wolves" of the suburbs of Rome feed on leftover pasta. Wolves raise their young right on the outskirts of the Romanian city of Brazov. If Isegrim also ventures into the German capital, one can look forward to the welcome. In any case, there would be enough meatballs.
Bone Crusher Lammergeier
The bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus) has been circling above its traditional habitat for much longer – for around 27 years. Completely wiped out in the entire Alpine region at the end of the 19th century, the largest native vulture species only managed to return with the help of humans: breeding for reintroduction began in 1978 with a breeding pair from the Innsbruck Alpine Zoo. "We currently count 135 free-living vultures," reports Dagmar Andres-Brümmer from the Zoological Society in Frankfurt, one of the main sponsors of the project, "27 young vultures have flown free so far".
As scavengers, the birds need a high density of mammals in their territory so that there are many carcasses: With the exception of goats, there are just as many livestock as there were at the time of their extinction - if not more. And wild animals such as deer, roe deer and chamois are much more common today than they were a hundred years ago. The chances of independent survival after the end of the project are therefore good. Incidentally, the bird rightly bears its nickname "bone breaker": Bones make up up to 90 percent of its food. He lets pieces that are too big fall onto rocks from a great height until they break. On the other hand, the reputation as a lamb robber is unjustified. The habit of hauling away large chunks of carrion in its fangs has earned it this bad reputation.
Here too, intensive educational work on the living habits has made a significant contribution to the fact that the birds are no longer perceived as a threat today. People have initiated their return, people have been supporting the survival of the population since the beginning of the project, professionally, on a voluntary basis or through donations. And people have invested in the vultures: "According to rough calculations, we arrive at an amount of well over 100,000 euros per bearded vulture released," says Ms. Andres-Brümmer, "so a total of 13 to 15 million euros is flying around in the Alpine region". Announced as a lottery jackpot, such a sum sends the whole country into a fever. The example makes it clear that the reintroduction of a species that has already died out can only be the last of all solutions: protection of living species - including those that have returned - is worthwhile, not only ecologically but above all economically.
Wolves have proven elsewhere that they can cope with civilization. You and the rather uncomfortable returnee Bär deserve a benevolent welcome and professional treatment - if you want to stay. Considerations of how and not whether it could work are required. Not only because the presence of these predators at the top of the food pyramid is important for the entire ecosystem. Not only because such species clearly show the beauty and uniqueness of nature. And not just because they bring back a piece of wilderness "on the doorstep" through their existence. Coming home voluntarily is just plain cheaper.