How the fall of the Berlin Wall helped bring big predators back to Western Europe
At dawn on June 26, after a month of raiding beehives and killing 35 sheep, the first brown bear to set its paws on German soil in more than 170 years was shot and killed near the Austrian border. The death of Bruno the Bear caused a minor diplomatic scandal, with the government of Italy (where Bruno began his travels) lodging a formal protest at the killing.
After centuries of merciless hunting and destruction of habitat, bears, wolves, lynx, eagles, and moose had all but disappeared from this part of the world. But now they're back, migrating westward from Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Moose from Poland have made it to the gates of Munich. Brown bears from Slovakia and Slovenia have now established a resident population of about 30 animals in Austria. Italy's national parks are home to more than 100 bears, and roughly the same number live in northern Spain and the Pyrenees. Wolf packs hunt in Italy, Spain, Portugal, and the French Alps -- and, since 2002, on a German army firing range. The lynx, virtually extinct in Europe, has re-established itself in the Alps, the Pyrenees, and the Carpathians. Eagles have bounced back, and so have bearded vultures. River otters are advancing west at the rate of six miles each year.
The rewilding of Western Europe is the result of dramatic political and demographic changes. The fall of the Iron Curtain 17 years ago eliminated a major obstacle to their westward trek. Parts of the former no-go area in the heart of Germany, once dotted with landmines, have now been set aside as a "green band" to protect plant and animal habitat. A shrinking population is steadily abandoning mountainous and wooded areas, and European agricultural policies are turning away from using every acre of land for food production.
Best of all, popular attitudes seem to be shifting. Once upon a time the big bad wolf was a staple of European fairy tales, but today people have an appreciation for the presence of these wild creatures. "We are now learning that red deer, bison, moose, wild horses, wolves, and bears not only are a luxury but play a key role in maintaining natural habitats," says Christoph Heinrich of the German Society for Nature Conservation. And while Bruno's manners may have been inappropriate, thousands mourned his untimely passing. The German chocolate maker Haribo even produced a candy bar in Bruno's honor, with part of the proceeds going to the World Wildlife Fund.
-- Bernhard Poetter