Parks Beyond Borders: A European View On The Importance of Wildlife in Wilderness

Vlado Vancura is Conservation Manager of PAN Parks, a Foundation that is forging wilderness preservation and designation in European national parks. Vancura is responsible for the wildlands verification process and keeping in contact with protected areas and conservation NGOs. “In the past 5 years,” the organization says, “PAN Parks Foundation in cooperation with other partners such as Wild Europe, WWF and Europarc has managed to create a unique wilderness momentum in Europe.” PAN Parks blog articles like the one below by Vancura have become “a simple, yet effective instrument to explain” relatively new terms in Europe—such as “wilderness, biodiversity, rewilding, and conservation.” Vancura has a forestry degree from the Forestry University in Zvolen, Slovakia and finished his postgraduate studies on "Management of natural resources". Between 1982 and 1996 he worked for the National Park Service, Slovakia. He spent two years as a volunteer for the U.S. National Park Service and six months as a volunteer for Parks Canada.

Arguments surface from time to time about large predators and whether or not they are critically important in maintaining the integrity of wilderness ecosystems.

First of all, ecological interactions are initiated by top predators. Secondly, wide-ranging predators usually require large cores of protected landscapes for foraging and seasonal movements. Thirdly, connectivity is required, because core reserves are typically not large enough to maintain sustainable viable predators’ populations.

If we kill off wolves and other wild hunters, we’ll lose not only the prominent species, but also the key to ecological and evolutionary process of top-down regulation. Large carnivores are essential for landscape-level ecological restoration as well as for the restoration of other highly interactive species and the dynamism of natural processes, such as fire and flood. These are all critically important elements of wilderness.

If native large carnivores have been killed out in a region, their reintroduction and recovery should be at the core of local wilderness conservation strategy. Wolves, lynx, brown bears, otters and other top carnivores are already restored in many corners of Europe, where a suitable habitat remains or can be restored for them. Obviously, large areas of Europe have been widely modified by humans and support such large human populations and intensive agriculture or forestry that their reintroduction and recovery is not always feasible. Nevertheless, without the goal of reintroduction and recovery of large predators, we are closing our eyes to the fact what wilderness really means and demands. Several wildlife biologists believe, that "Wilderness without animals (and particularly predators) is dead - dead scenery. Animals without wilderness are a closed book."

However we should make clear that wilderness doesn't always mean a 'safari'. Lack of animal visibility doesn't mean poor wilderness and low conservation value, but too easy visibility of animals and particularly carnivores can actually be a sign that something isn’t going well. From the visitor perspective, seeing wildlife is obviously a top experience. What can be more exciting than to see wolves or bears roaming wild and free in nature? Nevertheless too much observation, too much 'peaceful' interaction between animals and humans is changing the behaviour of carnivores (and not only carnivores) and their level of awareness and bringing about many negative consequences.

A 'no hunting' policy in many protected areas often ends up reducing the escaping distance of many animals, particularly large herbivores. Herbivores have learned how to use human presence as an advantage to protect themselves from becoming prey for carnivores. The result is that grazing herbivores can be found very close to villages, roads, and recreation centres. The ability to observe grazing animals along the road, very often directly from the vehicles has obviously a big attraction for visitors—but it is unhealthy for the animals.

Wilderness has a great social-economical-biodiversity value. We Europeans started to explore and appreciate this part of the European natural heritage only in the past few years. Public support and interest are extremely important to promote this momentum. However we should be aware that inappropriate management of these last remnants of European wilderness areas can damage them. For example replacing extractive uses such as hunting, logging or grazing by commercial 'safaris' will not only negatively affect the behaviour of animals—but artificial opportunities to observe disrupted wildlife behavious has nothing to do with the wilderness concept.