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Wildlife comeback in Europe

The successful return of species to their natural habitats

Eurasian Beaver, European Bison and White-tailed Eagle have all been highlighted as species that have made a remarkable comeback in Europe over the past 50 years, according to a first ever in-depth study.

Scientists from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), BirdLife International and the European Bird Census Council (EBCC) worked with species experts from across Europe to gather relevant data about the distribution and abundance of selected species. The resulting report, Wildlife Comeback in Europe, describes how 37 mammal and bird species have increased in numbers over the past 50 years, and in some cases have reclaimed their former European territory.

At an event at the London Zoo on 26 September the study was handed over to Mr Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy, Member of the European Parliament. He stated “This report shows first of all the amazing resilience of nature. Furthermore, it emphasizes the importance of EU policy: the Birds and Habitats Directives, the Natura 2000 network of protected areas and the Water Framework Directive are all explicitly credited for supporting this impressive return of wildlife. The rewilding of Europe exceeds nature protection, because these iconic species create unique opportunities for rural development.” He added “I firmly believe that smart investments in nature create huge economic opportunities and I will continue to work vigorously in Brussels to turn the rewilding of Europe into reality.”

Ariel Brunner, Head of EU Policy at BirdLife Europe, spoke at the event: “The case studies of wildlife comeback in this report supports decades of conservation efforts in Europe. Sound legislation, such as the Birds and Habitats Directives have led to better hunting regulation, species and site protection and focusing of conservation investments. They show that with sufficient resources and appropriate efforts, species can be brought back, even from the brink of extinction.”

White-tailed Eagle, one of the largest birds of prey in the world, has made an impressive recovery following dramatic declines and extinctions in many countries between 1800 and 1970. Thanks to legal protection the European population grew from fewer than 2,500 pairs in 1970 to 9,600 pairs in 2010, and the species has recently recolonised parts of its former range in northwestern Europe.

European Bison, the largest herbivore in Europe, went extinct in the wild in the early 20th century due to severe hunting pressure and habitat loss. After a large-scale breeding and reintroduction programme based on the 13 breeding individuals remaining in captivity, wild populations have been re-established in areas of central and eastern Europe, with a stronghold in Poland and Belarus.

Christina Ieronymidou, European Research Assistant, BirdLife International stated “Conservation works and species can recover if you take the right actions. In the Wildlife Comeback Study we analysed 19 different European bird species and saw on average a 5% increase per year. Species growth and decline depend on the conservation measures we take so our efforts need to persist.”

Despite the return of an impressive number of European birds and mammals, we are still losing biodiversity. The results of this report must be viewed in the context of large historical declines. For carnivores like the Eurasian Lynx and Grey Wolf, and many bird species including the Red Kite, distributions and abundances had already declined dramatically from their historical levels by the mid-20th century. Wildlife resurgence must therefore be assessed cautiously, as many species have not yet reached the level necessary to secure sustainable populations.

4th July 2014