Nine wolves are poisoned in the Abruzzo region

The European Nature Trust is reporting on the illegal poisoning of nine wolves in the Abruzzo region. The event is symptomatic of our lack of understanding of wolves, the need for mutual coexistence between humans and wildlife, and should be condemned. 

In the last few days, staff and volunteers of Rewilding Appenines and Salviamo l’Orso found the carcasses of nine wolves, five griffon vultures and two ravens, all killed by illegal poisoning in one of Italy’s most wildlife rich regions.

The episode took place in Cocullo, in the Province of l’Aquila, outside protected areas but in a vital ecological corridor that unites the Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise National Park and the Sirente Velino Regional Natural Park. This is a crucial habitat area for the critically endangered Marsican brown bear, of which just 60 remain.

The spreading of poisoned baits or carcasses with poison on the territory is a criminal practice that must be fought and condemned. It represents a threat to the safety, not only of wildlife, but also of humans and pets. The impact of these illegal activities is enormous. Moreover, the impact moves up and across the food chain, with poison leaching into soils, and with many animals – including Marsican brown bears – sometimes feeding on poisoned carcasses.

A letter has been sent by a collective of organisations to national, regional and local authorities to ask for swift judicial actions to prevent reoccurrence of poisonings, and to strengthen intervention and investigation procedures.

A fraught and intertwined history

No animal in the world has been more vilified and misunderstood than the Grey wolf. At the end of the 18th century, wolf populations were present in most areas of Europe, but as human populations grew in rural areas across the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, wolves began to be intensely persecuted. As more land began to be used for livestock rearing, humans encroached on territories used by wolves, placing us in closer proximity with our canine cousins. Wolf ‘bounty hunters’ were employed by local and municipal governments to bring down their numbers; wolves were trapped and killed in purpose-built brick pens; to propel an anti-wolf agenda, they became demonised in our folklore as a threat to the rural way of life.

The latest poisonings are reminiscent of these unenlightened days of old.

Coexistence is needed now more than ever: In the last 50 years, wolf populations across Europe have increased. A highly adaptable species, wolves have reoccupied areas of suitable habitat. In the last decade, the total wolf range has increased by over 25% in Europe. After having experienced a severe reduction in the first half of the 20th century, the wolf has become a protected species in many European countries. All mainland European countries now have wolves, some with large numbers (e.g. Bulgaria, Greece, Italy, Poland, Romania, Spain, and Ukraine have more than 1000 individuals).

Wolf populations in Europe as of 2016 (Boitani 2018)*

Wolves help regulate healthy nature, from which we as humans derive benefits

The wolf is an essential regulator of European ecosystems. As an apex predator, wolves help to regulate the balance of their grassland and forest ecosystems. Through predation, they control the populations of herbivores, helping to reduce grazing pressure, allowing the natural regeneration of forest biomes and native flora. In creating a ‘landscape of fear’, they keep their prey on the move, preventing vegetation in any one area becoming overly degraded, and in turn allowing more diverse plant and animal species to flourish.

Research shows that the loss of important predators can lead to uncontrolled growth of herbivore populations, leading to excessive grazing pressure, thereby reducing species richness and the ability of ecosystems to absorb carbon.

Healthy ecosystems have the power to help us mitigate the worst impacts of climate change—especially when we harness the benefits of“natural climate solutions” (NCS)that restore and protect significant carbon-storing environments like forests, grasslands, and wetlands. Ecosystems that are regulated by apex predators are the most carbon rich. In the boreal forests of Canada, for example, the indirect effect of wolves controlling elk populations is equivalent to storing the emissions of33–71 million passenger vehicles per year.

Moreover, by controlling the numbers of ungulates and balancing the food chain, wolves reduce herbivore damage to high value crops. The presence of wolves in areas leads to ‘wolf tourism’ opportunities; after wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995,wolf tourism has led to increased revenues of $31.5 million annually.

However, many are unaware of their role in regulating healthy nature, or of the broader benefits that wolf presence can bring, seeing wolves only as a threat. Wolf depredation of livestock is the main cause of intolerance toward the species in human-dominated landscapes; and, in many areas we are still gripped by folkloric fears of wolf attacks.

In order to coexist with apex predators, we need effective communication and trust between rural communities, governments, and conservation groups. Hot-headed, illegal killings of wolves are reactionary, counter-productive to a trustful dialogue being established, and diminish our ability to coexist with, and benefit from, wildlife. Fundamental misunderstandings of the broader benefits that apex predators bring to establishing healthy nature run contrary to the EU’s ambitious nature restoration and net-zero targets.

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Tuesday, May 23, 2023