(Bloomberg) -- European populations of mammals like beavers and bison, and birds like the osprey and Barnacle goose, are bouncing back following decades of successful conservation initiatives.
Most of the 50 species tracked by Rewilding Europe are increasing in numbers and spreading to new areas across the continent, according to the non-profit’s latest Wildlife Comeback in Europe 2022 report released on Tuesday. The findings contrast with the biodiversity crisis unfolding on a global level, as dozens of species disappear and hundreds shrink in numbers. It also offers hope.
“Wildlife and nature can bounce back if we make the right decisions, if we allow that to happen,” said Rewilding Europe executive director Frans Schepers. “This comeback should be seen in the perspective of the much higher numbers we had in the past — it’s the start of the recovery.”
Globally, rising greenhouse gas emissions and human activities like fishing, hunting and deforestation are wrecking ecosystems and threatening the survival of plants and animals. Biodiversity loss is worse than previously thought, according to a major scientific study published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment in July, with about a third of species globally threatened or driven to extinction since 2015.
Wild animals have been hunted and poisoned in Europe for centuries, while urban development, pollution and major infrastructure have decimated habitats and contributed to dwindling populations. The European Union has made conservation and restoration of natural habitats and wildlife a key part of its strategy to fight climate change, wildfires and disease outbreaks. It plans to spend 20 billion euros ($24 billion) per year on biodiversity conservation through 2030.
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The species now thriving in Europe are shielded by legislation that protects their habitats, forbids hunting and punishes poisoning, Schepers said. Programs targeting the recovery of specific species, or efforts to create wildlife corridors between different natural areas are also helping.
Among the most successful species is the Eurasian beaver, whose population has soared by over 16,000% since 1960. The continent’s largest herbivore, the iconic European bison, went from being extinct in the wild to a population of 6,819 in Europe in 2020, with free-living bison present in countries like Belarus, Germany, Poland, Romania, Russia and Ukraine.
The Iberian lynx, one of the most endangered carnivore species globally, is making a comeback on the Iberian peninsula, with an estimated population of over 1,100 in 2020. Habitat management and reintroduction programs helped save the predator, which would have otherwise become extinct, according to research cited in the report.
The Grey wolf has recolonized most of its previous range along Italy’s Apennine Mountains and the Po lowlands in just 40 years, and its presence has been recorded in almost all European countries. The population increased over 1,800% from 1965 to 2016 and there were at least 17,000 wolves in Europe in 2018.
The growing presence of wolves and other large predators like the brown bear has sparked tensions with humans most in contact with nature. Shepherds, for example, need to adapt after generations in which flocks could be left unguarded, Schepers said.
“We can’t leave the sheep alone at night anymore because predators are back, so they need to be kept inside and protected,” he said. “There’s a transition happening and that doesn’t come without problems, but we have hundreds of examples where coexistence has worked.”
Among the species analyzed in the report, six bird species -- including the Eastern imperial eagle — are now seen in narrower range. Populations of White-headed duck, Audouin’s gull, and some Eurasian lynx are still declining, despite recently recovering from historical lows.
“There’s more than 50 species coming back to Europe in the past 50 years, but by looking at these we can see what worked,” Schepers said. “It shows that, if you take measures, wild animals can recover.”
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