Call of the wild? What are we trying to achieve with European nature conservation?

Posted by on Jun 15, 2015 in Biodiversity | No Comments
Most of the remaining areas in Europe that are considered to have "high wilderness quality" are located at high elevations.  (Source: European Environment Agency

Most of the remaining areas in Europe that are considered to have “high wilderness quality” are located at high elevations. (Source: European Environment Agency)

In the European Union nature conservation is framed by a set of legislative and other policy tools that prescribe various measures for the preservation of protected animal and plant species and their habitats. Recently the European Commission summarized its conservation goals in the EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2020, which, given that about a quarter of species are under threat of extinction, aims “to halt the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services in the EU by 2020” because of their “essential contribution to human well-being and economic prosperity”. But is there room for “wilderness” in this rather human-centred conservation strategy? In 2009 the European Parliament stated that “wilderness areas” can play a vital role in halting the loss of biodiversity and called for better protection of such areas. Indeed there are calls in some of the conservation community for “re-wilding Europe”. The European Environment Agency has published “wilderness quality index” maps, which indicate areas in Europe that are considered of high wilderness quality or with high wilderness potential. It may sound encouraging from a conservation point of view to hear calls for protecting some areas from direct human influence, but a look at the maps shows that rather few such wilderness areas remain, most of them at high elevations. Some areas in the Alpine region count among the top 10% of “wildest” areas.

How wild are these potential wilderness areas? What do we mean by wilderness? How much of it do we want? How far back in time do we look when we talk about restoring once native species? Are we referring only to particular animal and plant species, or do we also mean ecological processes when we talk about nature conservation? These and related questions go to the heart of the human-nature relationship and are often controversially discussed.

A recent article in the journal Conservation Biology looked at views of nature and human culture and how this relationship is represented in European conservation practice. Using examples from landscape-, species-, and protected area management the authors show that the classic separation of culture from nature is not common in European conservation practice. They note that, in Europe wildlife conservation occurs both within and outside protected areas, and human activity (e.g. livestock grazing, hunting, mowing) occurs inside protected areas as well, so that the lines between wild and domestic, nature and culture are blurred. Especially in the Alps, traditional cultural practices are valued and sometimes cited along with nature as worth conserving. Nature and culture have long been intertwined on the continent, and minimal-intervention zones are quite rare in the protected area landscape.

There is a close connection between culture and nature in Europe. (Photo P. Kaczensky)

There is a close connection between culture and nature in Europe. (Photo P. Kaczensky)

Almost symbolic for the close association of humans and nature is the recovery of once eradicated large carnivore species, such as wolves and bears across Europe. Although often associated with “wilderness”, these predators now increasingly roam human-dominated landscapes, eliciting shouts of joy form some and grumbles of concern from others.   Also, non-intervention works for some but not all of biodiversity. For some species, including some birds and plants, life depends on human-managed habitats.

So when in we argue for finding a balance between expanding the use of renewable energy and nature conservation, we also have to be aware that nature means different things to different people. Science-based methods can help make rational decisions, but the parameters that go into models such as the ones devised by are based on laws, policies, economic factors, and other human priorities. Ultimately societal values influence our apparently most rational choices, including what we mean when we talk about nature conservation.

About Karin Svadlenak-Gomez

“I am passionate about nature and mountains, so it is quite satisfying to be involved in a project that seeks a balanced approach to using and protecting the diverse natural resources in the Alps.” _ Karin Svadlenak-Gomez, Research Institute of Wildlife Ecology, University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna, Lead Partner support in project management and public relations of the project

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