Europe’s Endangered Mammals Are Making a Comeback. So Why Are Experts Worried?

Conservationists worry that the focus on flagship species simply masks wider species loss.

Three Markhor goats stand on a hill at the Highland Wildlife Park in Kingussie, Scotland. (Photo: Russell Cheyn/Reuters)

Sep 30, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Richard Conniff is the author of House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth and other books.

News about wildlife often comes across as a litany of catastrophic decline. The startling truth, though, is that we generally succeed when we make the effort to fix a problem, or save a species.

Despite all the outrage and political posturing around the Endangered Species Act, for instance, 90 percent of the species it protects are recovering on schedule. You can see the results of that law, and other federal interventions, almost anywhere. Go to Manhattan’s Central Park, for instance, and with a little effort you can now find red-tailed hawks, sharp-shinned hawks and a peregrine falcon doing its 200-mile-an-hour killer dive to pick off a pigeon for dinner. All of these species (except the pigeons) were far less common—and the peregrines were actually endangered—until the federal government passed protective legislation in the 1970s, including a ban on the pesticide DDT. The same laws saved our pelicans, ospreys, herons, cormorants and of course our national bird, the bald eagle.

Now Europe is struggling with the terrible specter of success at species protection. A report out last week by the Zoological Society of London and other conservation groups describes a broad recovery of iconic bird and mammal species across the continent. Gray wolves have recently begun to recolonize southern France (with familiar complaints from livestock farmers). European brown bears have recovered former range not just in Finland and Sweden but also in the Balkan nation of Slovenia. The wild boars for which Lancelot and others went questing in Arthurian legend have lately expanded their range deep into Italy and Germany. White storks, which entered our lore as bringers of babies and good luck, are recovering across southern Europe.

The report attributes this comeback story to laws addressing such mid-20th-century threats as massive overhunting, poaching, poisoning, habitat loss, pollution and the use of certain toxic chemicals, combined with active management techniques like habitat protection and reintroduction of species.

So what’s so terrible about success? Critics worry that the focus on flagship species simply masks wider species loss. The report, and the recovery it documents, have neglected European insects, beetles and mollusks, according to Matt Shardlow of the invertebrate conservation group Buglife. For instance, about 15 percent of Europe’s dragonflies are now listed as threatened or endangered. Scientists have also warned that more than half of Europe’s amphibian species may face extinction over the next 40 years because of climate change, habitat loss and disease.

Writing in The Guardian, other critics worry about the kinds of wildlife protection being promoted. It may sound impressive that 21 percent of European land now has protected status, for instance. But only one percent of the continent is designated as wilderness. The critics doubt that Rewilding Europe, the organization that sponsored the study, aims to expand that wilderness area. Rewilding wants “to cover everywhere with herbivore excrement,” warns Mark Fisher of the Wildland Research Institute. “In effect they want to create large-scale, open-air zoos, where herds of livestock and horses can be seen roaming around and eating the life out of the land.

“I can only imagine a sustainable wildlife comeback if there is enough space for animals to live without any (and I mean ANY) extractive use!,” Zoltán Kun, of Pan Parks Foundation, added in an email. “No logging, no hunting, no grazing with domestic animals, no fishing, no mining and no biofuel or green energy production.”

So what’s the takeaway? It’s easy for environmentalists to get bogged down in the bickering and pessimism that seem to be our second nature. Despair comes especially easily in the face of climate change. The Koch Brothers and other powerful interest groups spend heavily to instill that spirit of surrender and disparage environmental action of any kind.

But the powerful message in the Zoological Society of London report is that conservation works. “We’re trying to find success stories,” says Jonathan Baillie, director of conservation at the Society, “so we can learn from them, see what works and scale that up across the conservation movement globally.”

We can save elephants in South Africa, tigers in India, rhinos in Sumatra, and amphibians everywhere. It’s really just a matter of whether we can muster the will to commit the necessary resources. In the process we can save ourselves. Pausing now and then to reflect on fights we have won is one way to gather the strength we’ll need for future battles.