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Rewilding Europe

Jennifer Collins
July 16, 2015

Some of Europe's endangered and disappeared animals are returning to the continent's diverse habitats with a little help from conservationists.

Photo: Dolomites
Image: Fotolia/Krasnevsky

When people think of endangered animals, images of fluffy pandas munching on bamboo in Asian forests or hulking great rhinos trundling across African plains usually spring to mind. But Europe is also home to many species that are threatened as a result of hunting, intensive agriculture, pollution and climate change. Now major efforts are underway to bring back lost or dwindling animals through "rewilding" and by reversing ecological destruction.

Organizations such as Rewilding Europe - set up in 2011 to rewild one million hectares on the continent by 2020 - and newly formed Rewilding Britain, are trying to reintroduce or boost many endangered or disappearing species. They say making Europe a wilder place will benefit people and strengthen ecosystems.

Here are just six species making a comeback in Europe.

Bulky bison

Photo: Bison (Source: Staffan Widstrand / Rewilding Europe)
Image: Staffan Widstrand / Rewilding Europe

The European bison is one of the most endangered large mammals in the world, according to Rewilding Europe. With only 3,000 animals left in the wild, it is more threatened than the black rhino.

Humans first forced bison to retreat to remote parts of Europe with intensive hunting after the Ice Age. During World War I and the Russian revolution, poachers hunted the wild bison into extinction. If it hadn't been for the 54 animals kept in different zoos, the species would not have survived. Bison could roam the continent once again, if conservation efforts go well.

Horsing around

Photo: A herd of wild horses (Source: DW / Maksim Nelioubin)
Image: DW/Maksim Nelioubin

You're probably wondering why horses are on the list - there are quite a few of them around. But before humans domesticated the horse, wild herds galloped across Europe unfettered. The last European wild horse is thought to have died out around 1909. While the original wild steeds are gone, many horse breeds today still carry the same genetic material. It would take generations, but these horses could adapt to living in the wild again, say conservationists. Rewilding Europe, which is working to bring the wild horse back, says the animal was a "vital part of the ecosystem for hundreds of thousands of years."

The Dülmener wild horse pictured is originally of medieval stock. The population lives in a small reserve in the city of Dülmen in western Germany. Every year the city holds a competition whereby participants try to catch the horses.

Eurasian lynx

Close-up of a European lynx
Image: picture-alliance/WILDLIFE

From wild horses to wild cats: The Eurasian lynx - at home in Europe and Siberia's forests - is the former's third-largest predator after the brown bear and grey wolf. Habitat loss and hunting forced numbers down but the species can still be found in a few refuges. Efforts are underway to reintroduce the lynx to Europe's recovering forests, including in the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate. Roe deer - the lynx's favorite meal - better watch out.

Bucking goats

Photo: An Iberian ibex stands on a rock
Image: picture alliance/blickwinkel/S. Meyers

The Iberian ibex doesn't really care about gravity. The goat likes to live in rocky habitats with steep, bare slopes. But that's not what led to the animal's decline. The ibex was once found across south-west France, Spain and Portugal. Over-exploitation, poaching and competition with other species pushed the population down significantly. In recent years, the ibex has bounced back to some degree in Spain and Portugal.

Brown bear

Photo: A Brown bear with a fish in its mouth
Image: picture-alliance/OKAPIA KG/E. Kuchling

Brown bears were once a common sight in Western Europe but are now only found in small numbers in Scandinavia, Spain and central Italy - partly as a result of human encroachment, poaching and habitat fragmentation. While some might not be happy to hear of the comeback of these giant animals (they can weight over 135 kilograms), WWF says bears rarely attack humans. A mother bear may become ferocious when defending her cubs but when they do attack people, it's generally because their poor eyesight has led to a case of mistaken identity. The brown bear is an omnivore and eats berries nuts, ants, livestock and honey, of course.

Big bad wolves in Britain

Photo: A lone grey wolf standing at the edge of a forest.
Image: imago/blickwinkel

Much has been made of the return of the wolf to Germany and other European countries. An estimated 25 packs now roam Germany's forests, barely noticed by humans. But thanks to fairytales like "Little Red Riding Hood," wolves have gained a bad reputation as dangerous and cunning predators. A wolf center in Lower Saxony in the north of the country aims to dispel misconceptions and boost acceptance of wolves as a part of nature. They hope this will help increase wolf populations.

In Britain, wolves are thought to have disappeared some time in the 1700s due to hunting for their pelts. Rewilding Britain would like to see wolves reintroduced, saying they can stop deer overgrazing, allowing forests to recover. The group adds that any rewilding attempt would need "widespread public consent" first.

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