Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Bears and Wolves at the Door

by Edward Hugh

The ongoing demographic transition is likely to have consequences far beyond the already obvious ones. Some of these are only to be expected, like growing pressure on raw material and energy resources as large developing countries (India, China) get richer (the upside of the transition), others are less obvious, declining populations and growing urbanization, for example, mean that previously populated parts of the planet will become virtually uninhabited.

This 'desertization' phenomenon appears to be happening in some very surprising places take Japan for example

Scarce acorns, silent guns and rural depopulation are bringing Japan's bears out of the woods.

The number of Japanese black bears caught feasting in fields of sweet corn, apples and other crops has jumped this year, with the animals increasingly undisturbed by hunters, whose ranks are dwindling as the population ages.

"There are plenty of bears out there who've never even heard a gunshot, so if they do see people, they think it's OK not to run away," said Hidetake Hayashi of the Shinshu Black Bear Research Group, which monitors bears in Nagano prefecture.

The number of hunters in Japan has fallen from almost half a million in the late 1970s to about 150,000 in 2005, according to Dainihon Ryoyukai, the Japan hunters' association, so people might appear less intimidating to their ursine neighbours.

In Gifu prefecture, rangers have shot 121 bears since the start of April, six times as many as in the previous 12 months, the Yomiuri daily reported.

Gifu University's Professor Toshio Tsubota, who heads the Japan Bear Network, a nationwide body involved in bear research, said a skimpy acorn crop this year was the most likely cause of the rise in number of sightings. The shortage of their favourite food has forced the bears to seek other sustenance before hibernating at the end of autumn.

A longer-term reason was rural depopulation, Tsubota added. As fewer villagers venture into the woods to chop down trees for firewood, the border zone between forest and village has eroded. "The villages have thinned out," the Shinshu group's Hayashi said. "Bears may now think it's all right for them to be there."

More predictable is what is happening in Russia and Central Europe where it is once more wolf at the door time

WOLVES, wild boar and brown bears are moving west in Europe as nature takes hold of rural regions abandoned by people seeking work in the cities. Wildlife migration is shadowing human migration and, according to population experts, is set to transform the way we look at the Continent. Wild boar are already ransacking dustbins on the outskirts of Berlin and bears are startling schoolgirls in Austria.

Great swaths of Europe are surrendering to nature as human birthrates plunge and unemployment draws people into the big industrial hubs.

Stefan Kronert, a researcher at the Berlin Institute of Population and Development, said: “There is a kind of suction towards the metropolitan centres. People are leaving behind the old mines and quarries, farmland that can no longer be profitably harvested, and they forage for work.”

Europe will lose 41 million people by 2030 if today’s birthrates continue to languish at the present level. About 22 of the 25 countries with the lowest birthrate in the world are in Europe. Poor but rapidly changing countries such as Romania and Bulgaria are undergoing a quiet social revolution. And in its wake comes the wildlife.

Wolves disappeared from eastern Germany around 1850. Suddenly they are back. They started moving westwards, probably from the Carpathian Mountains, over the Neisse River, which divides Poland from Germany. The animals moved into the overgrown acres of artillery ranges and exercise grounds abandoned by the Soviet forces in Saxony.

The wolves feed off deer and are flourishing; two packs have already formed and biologists say that a third is taking shape.

The human population of eastern Germany, by contrast, is dwindling. Almost one million have left for western Germany since unification. Villages are dying out. One community, Horno, has been reduced to two people. They are hanging on, resisting an electricity company’s attempts to bulldoze their home in the search for coal.

Frank Mörschel, of the German branch of the World Wide Fund for Nature, said: “In the long run, we can count on wolves repopulating much of eastern Germany — as long as humans let it happen.”

Wolves are on the move throughout Europe and the reason is always the same: they sense a change in human behaviour. It became clear last year that Italian wolves were moving across the Alps to the French side. The mountainside sheep farmers in France were allowing their flocks to graze without protection. There was no choice; the young were leaving the villages and farming dynasties were dying out. The wolves saw their chance and crossed the border.

Across Europe, and across species, it is a similar story.

The Polish migrants arriving in Victoria bus station come mainly from eastern Poland, from tiny villages scattered along the Ukrainian frontier. They send money home to support their elderly relatives but ultimately the communities are doomed and are already shrinking. The wildlife, searching for food and minimal contact with humans, fills the vacated space.

In Slovenia, the brown bear population has risen to 700 — the second-largest after Romania — and they prowl the dense forest land of the Alpine republic. But the country is small and there are frequent confrontations with humans.

“The situation is so critical that in some villages kids need a bus to take them to a school only a kilometre or so away because they run into a bear virtually every day,” a senior official at the Slovene Agriculture Ministry said.

The bears are, almost certainly, more frightened than the pupils and so they have begun a migration into the Austrian province of Carinthia. There they have more space to roam and better chances to steal livestock. Most of the brown bears have come northwards from war-plagued Bosnia and Croatia in the 1990s. Now instead of fleeing war they are fleeing rapidly modernising Slovenia for the most depressed region of Austria.

Wildcats and ospreys are reasserting themselves across eastern Germany. Domestic cats left by families who have moved westwards are even crossbreeding with wildcats.

However, Dr Kronert said: “Don’t count on a major return to nature in western Germany. Even if the birthrate is going down there too, it is still too densely populated. The key areas are not even necessarily those on the borders with Eastern Europe. Look at the Prignitz, half way between Hamburg and Berlin — people are leaving in droves and the region is becoming more and more like a nature reserve.”

The most extraordinary wildlife area in Eastern Europe is probably the Danube delta, primarily because it was inhabited for centuries only by religious exiles, fishermen and lepers. It was on the very margins of Europe. Today the delta, in Romania, boasts 280 bird species including pelicans, egrets, whooper swans and rare wintering birds such as the red-breasted goose. The mammals include raccoon, mink and polecats. Tortoises, vipers and other poisonous snakes also inhabit the delta, which adjoins the Black Sea. This could be the future of other, more recently depopulated, regions.

Farmers’ young sons are leaving and not returning, and their parents are selling up to subsidise their pensions. The new purchasers often find it more profitable under the Common Agricultural Policy to let the land run wild rather than farm it. Woodland is growing back.

And so, bit by bit, the fringe Europe of impoverished and redundant farmers is becoming a pastoral idyll.

No comments: