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Living with large carnivores

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Rådgiver i WWF, dr. Zanete Andersone-Lilley, skriver om hvordan folk i Latvia lever i fred med sine rovdyr. Dette til tross for at Latvia har mange flere rovdyr, mye mindre plass og mye større befolkningstetthet enn Norge.

The discussion on large carnivores in Norway has been going on for ages and it has never stopped to amaze me how so small populations of wolves, lynx, bears and wolverines can cause such heated arguments among different groups. I spent many years of my career studying large carnivores in Latvia, specifically working on wolf and lynx. I thought it would be a good exercise to compare the situation in these two countries and see why there are such big differences.

Latvia is a flat country, like Denmark, and 5 times smaller than Norway. Half of the country is suitable for large carnivores (ca. 45% of the country is forest), and human density is about 37 people per 1 sq.km, which is more than twice than in Norway. And yet the density of large carnivores is so much higher than in Norway – about 200-300 wolves, 400-600 lynx and about 10 bears (Latvia is outside the wolverine natural range so there are no wolverines). At the same time, you won’t find any hysteria around it. No one is worried that wolves will start eating children on their way to school, even though rabies is a common disease among wildlife and contacts between rabid wolves and humans happen from time to time (once every 2-3 years or so in the last two decades). Luckily, in most cases humans only get light injuries and survive. The only lethal cases in the recent past have been when people chose not to get anti-rabies serum and died of rabies as a result.

There are several reasons why the attitude to large carnivores is probably more tolerant in Latvia and the Baltics in general. First, large carnivores have never been fully exterminated in the region and people learned to co-exist with them. Second, the level of damage to livestock is negligible, probably as a result of adjusted husbandry practices taking into account the presence of carnivores. E.g., in 2007, there have been only 11 cases of wolf or dog attacks (they are difficult to be distinguished) on domestic animals resulting in 72 killed and 11 injured animals, mainly sheep. Bears sometimes kill an occasional sheep or destroy a bee hive and lynx never cause any trouble. The reason for this is that all livestock is out in the pastures only during the daytime and is taken in during the night, thus reducing the chance of coming in contact with large carnivores, which is especially true for lynx who is an exclusive forest dweller in Latvia and rarely comes into open habitats.

In the Baltics, the only significant conflict is between large carnivores and hunters who see wolves and lynx as competitors for their game – roe deer, red deer, moose and wild boar. Wolves and lynx are game species, too. Since the Baltic countries joined the EU, there have been set hunting season (winter period) and quotas for wolves and lynx. It must be said that before the EU, wolves could be hunted all year round without any limitations and lynx, during winter season only, but without any quota. Now the situation has changed and carnivore populations are being closely monitored and quota is set annually to reflect the present situation of the population. Due to this interest conflict and long-embedded views on carnivores as pests in game management, there are sometimes issues with poaching, but in general hunters themselves appreciate wolf as a hunting game and say that this is the most exciting type of hunting there is. In this case legal hunting is actually a good conservation tool.

So, what’s so different in Norway that large carnivores are regarded as a big problem? The way I see it it’s a problem of livestock management rather than carnivore management. Having got used to the carnivore-free environment, farmers see no need for any preventive measures. If you let your livestock free out in the wild in the spring and collect what’s left of the flock in the autumn, do not be surprised that if there are wolves or lynx around, they will take their share as it’s essentially an equivalent for a MacDonald’s drive-through for carnivores. There are compensation schemes that cost the state a fortune and do not help to change the husbandry practice. Perhaps it would be better to pay for preventive measures instead? If you compare the effect of a (compensated) loss of some sheep to the big sheep owner and that of the loss of the only cow of a poor rural family, then who will be in a better position? We see this sort of thing all the time – be it in the rural areas of India, Africa or the comparatively wealthy Baltic. Yet we want Indians and Africans to save their tigers and lions, but we are not budging when it comes to saving our own large carnivores. Perhaps it’s time to stop making such a big fuss about a few wolves in Norway and accept that wildlife has its place and if countries with poor economy can tolerate large carnivores, rich countries like Norway should be able to do the same.

On a personal level I know that the world would be a boring place without these species. I can still remember my first indirect encounter with large carnivores when I as a 3-year old witnessed a distressed flock of sheep after a wolf attack with several sheep being injured. It was at my grandparent’s small farm in a remote corner of Latvia where I spent my summers. And yet I was allowed to wander around freely without my parents fretting about my safety as it was widely accepted that wolves posed no danger to humans most of the time. I just hope that my children also will be able to experience the nature in all its beauty, wolves, lynx and all.

Video footage from Slitere National Park in Latvia – showing camera-shy wolves chasing away ravens from their kill (red deer):


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