Elephant in the Alps, Hippos in the Highlands: Rewilding Europe with Jens-Christian Svenning

Image Credit: Benh Lieu Song, CC BY-SA 2.0, Image Cropped

We tend to think of the concept of large herbivores roaming freely around Europe as a notion confined to the ancient past. Yet in geological terms, huge herbivores and their associated carnivores were widespread on the European continent only a short time ago. With many ecosystems badly degraded, the idea of restoring ecological processes and enhancing biodiversity by reintroducing everything from bisons to elephants has been tossed around more and more.

But how do the reintroduction of these species help European ecosystems? To learn more about the phenomena, I spoke to Professor Jens-Christian Svenning, who has spoken extensively about the advantages of bringing large herbivores and carnivores back to the European mainland. We discussed what rewilding means, some recent success stories, and why living with megafauna in Europe is no harder than in any other part of the world.

Sam Perrin (SP): Rewilding has become a more and more popular term, but it’s not yet a household name in the same way that biodiversity or climate change are. What is rewilding to you?

Professor Jens-Christian Svenning, Aarhus University (JCS): Fundamentally, rewilding is about restoring self-functioning nature. That involves on one side restoring ecological integrity, and on the other side reducing human pressures on a system, because there’s no point restoring an environment if there’s ongoing severe pressure on that environment.

SP: People love megafauna like elephants, rhinos and hippos. So why is there a lack of awareness of how recently they were roaming Europe?

JCS: It’s shifting baseline syndrome. For most people when they think about how nature should be, they would think about perhaps their childhood or their grandparents’ time. But back then, our landscapes were already very devoid of wild fauna. Very few deer, very few large carnivores, very few raptors and seals, all of these things had already been exterminated.

There have been some comebacks though. If we look to 100 years ago, red deer was super rare in Denmark. And then it kept being quite rare until late in the 20th century, but now it;’s expanded so we have around 30,000 red deer here in Jotland now. That’s a wild comeback, and that’s new.

SP: How does bringing back larger megafauna help our ecosystems out?

JCS: We know that large animals are super important for ecosystems. Large herbivores are important for shaping vegetation structure, and they generate variability in vegetation structure in the landscape. That promotes diversity. 

Another aspect is that large animals are mobile, they have large home ranges, and that means that they are very important for the dispersal of other organisms in these systems. And of course for their codependent species. Lots of species depend on large herbivores, like dung-dependent species or carrion dependent species, or parasites. So they’re very important for ecosystems.

Coexistence though, that’s much more tricky right, because one reason they have been eradicated in many places is that they can be a danger, or annoying, or they’re not compatible with our other land uses. A lot of the eradication has happened in the past, when people lived in different ways and had more sparse resources. So there are reasons for the eradications that are not present today necessarily, which opens up opportunities. It’s also why we have seen some of these comebacks for many species.

SP: Let’s look at one example close to home. There have been examples of bison reintroduction on some islands in the Netherlands and Denmark. Would you consider those projects a success so far?

JCS: The ones in the Netherlands are clearly a success. The Danish one on the island of Bornholm has more been designed as a bison reintroduction program than a rewilding program really. European bison in general have some health problems because they’re so inbred, but they’re doing ok, they’re maintaining a population . It’s super popular with people by the way, several hundred thousand people visit every year. 

There’s a new project here in Denmark I’m super-excited about. It’s in an already existing, long established de facto rewilding area in north eastern Jotland. It’s quite big, many hundreds of hectares. It’s been fenced for more than 100 years actually, wild boar and red deer have come back since then. It’s a very biodiverse grazed woodland landscape. 

They’re now reintroducing the bison to this landscape because their assessment locally is that they’re missing a bigger grazer. Despite all the positive things I said about the biodiversity there, there is a tendency for coarse grasses to be more and more dominating, and they are not really eaten by the reindeer. So that’s the idea, to try and get in a bigger grazer. It’s a very interesting case, a more ecologically sound set-up. I’m quite optimistic about it.

Read More: Living Among Beasts: Sharing the Burden of Conservation

SP: Do you think it’s unfair that we’re happy for people in Africa and Asia to deal with these ‘exotic’ animals when we’re squeamish about having even just wolves in our backyard?

JCS: No I think that’s not fair at all. If these species ecologically had no meaning in Europe of course, then you could argue that it’s fair. But if you think it sounds strange or too inconvenient, then of course it’s not fair. Elephants are also inconvenient in Sri Lanka and India or Kenya. It’s easy for Europeans to say “let’s only restore what we’ve wiped out in the last few hundred years”, but that’s not very much. We eradicated things way before, and we expect them just to live in others places where they survived. It’s not more difficult to live with megafauna in Europe than in India.

Lions went extinct relatively recently in far Eastern Europe. Yet reintroducing them is not something that gets discussed (Image Credit: Benh Lieu Song, CC BY-SA 2.0)

SP: Let’s look at lions, which went extinct in Europe just under 200 years ago. What would need to happen to get people to the point where they’d be happy for lions to be reintroduced to Europe?

JCS: Lions were quite widespread between 2,000 and 6,000 years ago, so that’s not really prehistoric. We have stories of Alexander the Great having problems with lions attacking his caravans. Their former presence here is well established, it’s not something that’s dubious or anything.

I think the main reason it’s not being discussed is that even people who are interested in conservation and restoration, they also know it’s super tricky. Because lions are difficult. But I will just point out that Russia has a reintroduction program in the Northern Caucases for leopards. And of course the loss of leopards from that area is only in the last 100 years or so, so it’s more recent but it shows that living with big cats in Europe does happen.

SP: In a perfect world where everyone realised the value of bringing back species, we still would have to draw a line somewhere. How far do we go?

JCS: There is a practical and there is an ecological side. Let’s start with the ecological side. What has been the typical state for nature that our current species have evolved in and with? That’s what sets the baseline in some ways. We don’t want to restore dinosaurs, even if you could it would be a bad idea. It’s a time perspective of what is typical. But for most ecosystems, if you go back only 10,00 years, it’s typical to have intact megafauna, including elephants (or elephant sized herbivores), big cats, other large predators. Really diverse megafauna as we see in Africa and well protected areas. There’s a good argument for saying that’s what our current species have evolved with.

So then on the practical side, which species do you select? You would select of course the species that already exist, but even then you would think very carefully about the species. Do you have to use replacements, close relatives or so on? You need to make sure that the species is fulfilling the same function as the one it has replaced. 

Lastly, this megafauna is not necessarily convenient, and you have to find a coexistence approach. Some kind of zoning would be necessary, where you have urban landscapes, urban productive landscapes, and natural landscapes with more intact megafauna. These zones don’t have to be fully separated, they can also be integrated in some sense.

Dr. Sam Perrin is a freshwater ecologist who completed his PhD at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and is bang up for a rhino park in northern Germany. You can read more about his research and the rest of the Ecology for the Masses writers here, see more of his work at Ecology for the Masses here, or follow him on Twitter here.

One comment

  • Of course, you might want to have a chat with the folks who live along the Magdalena River in Colombia, where the late unlamented drug lord Pablo Escobar’s private collection of two pairs of hippos have now multiplied into the hundreds and are wrecking that river system with a vengeance – “No Country for Old Hippos,” as it were. The beasts have engendered a showdown between government environmentalists who want to exterminate them and the…er…hippo huggers who think they’re just big adorable aquatic plush toys.
    I suppose I’d prefer a forest full of clones mastodons, but that’s just me.


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