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The return of the wolf in the Italian northern Apennines – can rewilding discussions deescalate human-wildlife conflict?

“The recent recovery of large carnivores in many parts of Europe is bringing about some problems, but also potential for the restoration of ecosystems in places where biodiversity losses have dramatically occurred.”

In the first study of my life as scientist, which will be published in the very next future, I decided to analyse potential drawbacks for people caused by the return of wolves back into part of their historical range. These potential problems are generally contextualized as human-carnivore conflict by wildlife conservationists. To better understand the dynamics generating such conflict, I assessed the risk of predation by wolves on livestock in an area of Italian northern Apennines where farms were not used anymore due to the presence of predators in the wild. Moreover, I hypothesized that novel trophic interactions can be generated by the return of a large carnivore in a territory with many wild herbivores already occurring at high density. Thus, I investigated whether the return of wolves is triggering shift in game species distributions, notably modifying patterns of damage to croplands, which event would therefore constitute an indirect form of human-wolf conflict

Grazing land abandonment in Central Apennines Italy by Staffan Widstrand, Rewilding Europe

My results showed once more the importance of preventive measures in reducing the risk of predation by carnivores on livestock. I found that the main factors associated with predation risk were low quality fences around pastures and no surveillance by shepherds or guard dogs. Wolves preferred areas without buildings and close to protected forests, likely to avoid human presence. Such areas, though, seemed not to be associated to higher livestock predation risk than other areas. Moreover, I found support for the presence of novel trophic interactions determined by the comeback of wolves,

highlighting a displacement in crop damages distribution over time. Indeed, after just few years since the return of the wolves, the spatial risk of crop damages altered at a large scale spreading to built-up valleys and villages, farther from wolf packs’ territories.This could mean that wolves, increasing in numbers and hunting, could have pushed their wild prey in searching protection closer to humans, particularly in croplands (a likely human-activity shielding effect). (IMAGE: Canis lupus italicus by Andrea Benvenuti https://www.facebook.com/andreabenvenutiphotography/)

My study, though, is far from suggesting the halting of carnivores comeback in human-dominated landscapes because of these potential problems. Instead, it is part of a big effort to restore ecosystems through restoring wildlife, but with a focus on how to minimize the bad impact on humans and their activity. The recent recovery of large carnivores in many parts of Europe, indeed, is bringing about some problems, but also potential for the restoration of ecosystems in places where biodiversity losses have dramatically occurred. By promoting such restorations, we can achieve a higher natural provision of ecosystem services that are of essential importance for the welfare of our society. Many country economies would benefit from that, for instance by the improvement of drinking water provision, the decomposition of wastes, and the natural pollination of crops and other plants, such as for timber. Coexisting with wildlife is a crucial step for the future of humans in a sustainable society surrounded by healthy natural ecosystems.

Yet, we cannot forget the drawbacks of carnivore restoration for people that live close to wild areas. That is why identifying the determinants of human-carnivore conflict from the very beginning is of utmost importance. Such assessments can evolve in ready-to-use indications to identify conflict hotspots and implement target preventive measures to avoid livestock depredation or extensive crop damages caused by the fear induced in wild herbivores by carnivores presence. Many people, particularly those living in rural areas, are still extremely sceptical about the actual need of carnivores comeback, perceiving it mainly as an issue and a superimposition from governments. Making a concrete step towards improving the discussion on carnivore conservation, and link it to a more thorough process, is a key-task for ecologists. Wolf conservation, for instance, would highly benefit if more contextualized in the process of rewilding.

 Rewilding means restoring self-sustaining and complex ecosystems, with interlinked ecological processes that promote and support one another, while minimizing or gradually reducing human interventions. This process recognizes and works with complexity and autonomy as ecosystem inherent characteristics, and acknowledges their dynamic, unpredictable nature. Nevertheless, it is essential that people of rural areas do not see the rewilding process as an antagonist, like an excuse to push them off the land. Rewilding will indeed happen only with consent and enthusiasm. Preventing conflict with wildlife from the very beginning is likely the best approach to achieve such shared understanding.

Rewilding simply takes advantage of ongoing socio-economic dynamics, such as farmland abandonment. This process, in few decades, would restore natural ecosystems at large scale, eventually providing services of critical importance to humans. In addition, rewilding would bring benefits for people living out of cities; many argue nowadays against the depopulation of isolated areas. For example, rewilding may provide local employment opportunities through eco-tourism, an activity that will also benefit the sharing and spread of local traditions. To this ends, the presence of key animals such as large carnivores in rural landscapes is of paramount importance. I encourage scientists and journalists to support the return of large carnivores, such as wolves, in human-dominated landscapes. Furthermore, I suggest considering wolf conservation and human-carnivore conflict prevention as key-factors for rewilding in Europe. If citizens open their mind to such broader and positive view, eventually looking forward for a society coexisting with natural ecosystems, prevention of human-wildlife conflict will likely be easier since interests, cooperation and motivation in finding mitigation strategies and funding would be more readily available.

Author: Marco Davoli
marco.davoli@bios.au.dk

5 Comments

  1. Sjoerd Kluiving

    Great piece written Marco on some of the greatest and most mysterious animals in Europe. Interesting thesis in co-habitation of humans with rewilding effects such as the presence of the wolf offers far reaching potential in rewilding semi-urban landscapes in Europe and beyond. How can this message be conveyed to a larger audience, including the remaining local agricultural population?

    • Marco Davoli

      Dear Sjoerd, thanks a lot for your appreciation on my post. I must say that you pose a difficult question, and gladly I’ll be likely well formed in such topics after my PhD as TerraNova student.

      TO reply, I do think an important step forward for landscape managers would be to better understand the many differences present among European countries regarding the risks connected to human – wildlife conflict. For instance, in Italy we have many wolves (likely more than 2000 at the moment) and a wild landscape-mosaic crossing the whole country. There are many large protected areas, many wild prey, multiple large carnivores, so the situation is daily close to escalate. It is very hard to set up protection barriers for every pasture, and therefore farmers that struggle to coexist with wildlife often feel abandoned and take extreme measures by themselves, such as poaching. That is a pity story, but understandable.
      Moreover, and that was the first aim of this post of mine, there is not much knowledge among common people of how natural ecosystems work, and about rewilding practices and its importance in human-dominated landscapes. The recovery of large carnivores is seen from many farmers as a EU policy imposition. Therefore, to my view, the most important message to be conveyed to the large audience should focus on the important, essential, connection between wildlife conservation, prevention of damages to human activities, restoration of resilient natural ecosystems, and novel possibilities for rural economies. This message must be a cornerstone for rewildling implementation, to including people in the practice, since with no consent rewilding won’t be a successful process, likely.

  2. Ruud

    Hi Marco, nice blog. If your are in The Netherlands I’d be happy to show you our current situation. Perhaps you can do an assessment while enjoying a nice bicycle tour. Personally I don’t think we can see the wolf and lamb graze together, but that is of course in Gods hand. Looking forward to see your new insights, I am convinced you will master the Law of the Academic Jungle, together with you Terranova wolf pack.

    • Marco Davoli

      Hello Ruud, I’m definitely looking forward to my internship in Amsterdam @VUA, which has unfortunately been postponed. I’ll be happy to explore the countryside of Netherlands and have to possibility to make a quick assessment of the current situation of farming prevention practices against the risk of wolf attacks (and last but not the least, I love biking so it would be a great excuse to do that!).

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