Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Wolves return to eastern Germany as people leave

By Erik Kirschbaum

BERLIN (Reuters) - A century after they were wiped out by hunters and a burgeoning population, wolves have returned to parts of eastern Germany as factories close down, businesses fail and people move out. A few dozen wolves have formed a beachhead in Germany's Brandenburg state just west of the border with Poland and enjoy special protection from authorities delighted by the return of the shy animals so deeply entrenched in German folklore.

It's a surprising comeback in one of the world's leading industrial nations where 82 million people are squeezed into a country the size of the U.S. state of Montana. The wolves, who arrived from Poland or other neighboring countries, live in a largely vacant area of abandoned strip mines and vacated troop training grounds southeast of Berlin. They serve as a living testament to the profound changes taking place in eastern Germany, once a center of industry and mining, now fallen on hard times. Other species, like the crane and the white-tailed eagle -- have also flourished in the east as the human population decreases - an unintended result of German unification in 1990.

"The wolves were gone for over 100 years and first started coming back a while after the Berlin Wall fell," said Matthias Freude, head of the Brandenburg state environmental office, who estimates there are now about 20 wolves in two packs in Germany. "They swam across the Neise river or walked across the ice in winter," he added. "There are hardly any people left there now. The wolves' biggest predator is hunters. But it's against the law to hunt them in Germany."


More than 1.5 million people have left eastern Germany since the fall of the Berlin Wall -- about one-tenth of the population of the communist state that was proud to be one of the Soviet bloc's leading industrial nations. While Communist East Germany wanted nothing to do with wolves because they did not see any place for them in a modern industrial country, the Brandenburg state government set up after unification welcomed their return to the forests.

"They're following ancient migration routes back to Germany, partly because of the growing numbers in Poland, Slovakia and other parts of Eastern Europe (which) means they have to spread out and go somewhere," said Roland Melisch, head of the species conservation section at the WWF in Germany.

Brandenburg state, which surrounds Berlin, not only made it a crime to shoot wolves but offers farmers cash compensation for any farm animals that fall prey to the wolves. It also provides subsidies to farmers to buy electric fences to keep wolves out.

Freude said that so far only one of the 14 sheep killed in the last six years and reported to authorities by farmers seeking compensation was actually attacked by a wolf. The others were killed by dogs or other animals, he said. "We're all thrilled that the wolves are back," Freude said. "They belong here. The forest is a more exciting place when you know wolves are in it. They're difficult to see because they're very shy."

Wolves have also been returning to other countries where they were nearly extinct, including Italy, Austria, France and Baltic states, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). After a campaign of extermination lasting centuries, Germany shot the last of its wolves near Hoyerswerda in 1904. Wolves were also wiped out in most of the rest of northwestern Europe, although small populations survived in Spain and Italy.


Big, bad wolves feature prominently in European fables and fairy-tales like "Little Red Riding Hood" about a girl's encounter with a wicked wolf disguised as her grandmother. Many of these tales were recorded by Germans Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in the 19th century. "It was an undeserved rap," said Melisch. "The fact is we can live in harmony with wolves. They're predatory but there are ways to limit dangers to sheep or goats. Wolves have it good in Germany now and their population will surely keep growing."

The WWF said there are in fact no documented cases in Europe of a healthy wolf living in the wild ever intentionally attacking and killing a human.

Wolves might be feared in other countries but Freude said Germans are fascinated by their return. "The main reason they're here is because they are by and large undisturbed in Germany," he said. "They won't be hunted here because so many people have left. Depopulation is certainly an important factor for their return."

  • Reuters

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