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I Am Not Afraid of the Wolf – a new partnership

The grey wolf is experiencing a comeback in Europe. In Italy, wolves have returned to the Central Apennines and Italian Alps after centuries of human persecution. But their return has sparked a wave of misinformation and fear. Today, The European Nature Trust is announcing a new partnership with Io non ho paura del lupo, an activist group working to raise awareness, drive citizen science and coexistence solutions, and disseminate accurate information about the wolf.

No animal in the world has been more vilified and misunderstood than the Grey wolf. At the end of the 18th century, wolf populations were present in most areas of Europe, but as human populations grew in rural areas, wolf abundance drastically declined. Throughout the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, much of Europe became sanitised of wolves, and deliberately so: As more land began to be used for livestock rearing, humans encroached on territories used by wolves, placing wolves and humans in closer proximity. Wolf ‘bounty hunters’ were employed by local and municipal governments to bring down their numbers; the animals were trapped and killed in purpose-built brick pens; and to propel an anti-wolf agenda, they became demonized in our folklore as a threat to the rural way of life. Today, our perception of the animal remains an artifact of pastoral history. By the 1970s, the Grey wolf was only present in parts of southern and north-eastern Europe, and was entirely missing from the Italian Alps.

However, in recent years the species has rebounded. As rural-urban migration in mainland Europe has increased, mountain agricultural areas have been abandoned, leading to a reduction in livestock numbers in mountainous areas. Conservation actions and increased levels of protection have successfully reduced wolf persecution, while the abundance of their wild ungulate prey base like Red deer, Roe deer and wild boar have increased substantially in the last 40 years. A resilient and highly-dispersing species, the wolf has been able to recolonise tracts of its former range after the population nadir of the 1970s. In the last decade alone, the wolf has shown a 25% increase in its European range, now numbering roughly 17,000 individuals; the species has now rapidly expanded into central Europe, and in Italy, wolves have recolonised the Central Apennines, the Po lowlands and the Italian Alps.

Wolves occur in the whole Apennines range from Emilia to Calabria (Aspromonte) and extending into northern Lazio and central western Tuscany (provinces of Siena, Grosseto and Pisa) where they are categorised on the IUCN Red List as ‘Near-Threatened’, numbering around 2,500 individuals. In the Italian Alps, a transboundary population of wolves move between Northern Italy and Southern France, again ‘Near-Threatened’, and numbering around 1,900.

“Throughout the centuries we have projected onto the wolf the qualities we most despise and fear in ourselves.”

 Barry López, 
Biologist & Writer
Distribution of the Grey wolf in Europe. Source: Rewilding Europe. Wildlife Comeback in Europe, Opportunities and Challenges for Species Recovery.

Wolves are an essential part of healthy European ecosystems

As an apex predator, wolves help to regulate the balance of their grassland and forest ecosystems. Through predation, they control the populations of herbivores, helping to reduce grazing pressure, allowing the natural regeneration of forest biomes and native flora. In creating a ‘landscape of fear’, they keep their prey on the move, preventing vegetation in any one area becoming overly degraded, and in turn allowing more diverse plant and animal species to flourish. Research shows that the loss of important predators can lead to uncontrolled growth of herbivore populations, leading to excessive grazing pressure, thereby reducing the ability of ecosystems to absorb carbon. See here how wolves help to regulate ecosystems, with this example from Yellowstone National Park.

Today, wolves have almost entirely re-established their populations in highly human-modified landscapes, where humans raise livestock, hunt wild ungulates, and use forests and mountains for tourism and recreation. And so, as the wolf has reached good conservation status, age-old folkloric vitriol for the Grey wolf has re-emerged, as witnessed by the persistently high levels of illegal killing in several European countries. Though some pastoral communities have embraced the return of the wolf, rumors and misinformation campaigns are distorting the ecological truth and creating fierce divisions that can often be fatal for the wolf. It is true that Grey wolves can predate livestock and compete with hunters in some areas, but we are seeing a disproportionately negative and politicised response to their comeback in Europe, which fails to recognise their vital ecological role in an era of declining ecosystem health. Awareness campaigns and education are thus needed, now more than ever.

We are supporting Io Non Ho Paura Del Lupo - "I Am Not Afraid of the Wolf"

To raise conservation awareness of the wolf in Italy, we are partnering with Io Non Ho Paura Del Lupo (INHPDL) – an activist group with a focus on wolf-human relations. The group works to improve coexistence between the wolf, shepherding communities and others living closely to wolf habitats. They deliver communication campaigns and interventions that improve understanding and acceptance of the species. Through outreach, INHPDL are increasing knowledge of conservation issues and countering the flow of misinformation. Like The European Nature Trust, INPHL’s work is driven by the “wild” idea of a Europe that knows how to coexist with apex predators, as keystone species vital to the regulation of our ecosystems.

Fields of intervention:

  • Communication and Outreach – the fundamental pillars of providing strong education on the ecological and social realities of the wolf in Europe.
  • Conflict Mitigation – Reducing the conflict between wolves and human activities, with a particular focus on shepherding and pastoral communities.
  • Monitoring and Field Research – Using the power of citizen science, Io non ho paura del lupo are using non-invasive techniques to collect field data to learn about wolves in the natural environment, providing data to Italy’s top research institutions. 
  • Events and Ecotourism – Events open to the public offer space for exchange and networking to foster awareness and connections for the benefit of wolf conservation. Io non ho paura del lupo are exploring opportunities for wolf ecotourism in the Italian Alps.

All images courtesy of INHPDL.

How TENT will be supporting Io Non Ho Paura Del Lupo:

  • Over the coming years, TENT will support INHPL’s communications work, expanding the reach of truthful information on the wolf. 
  • As a partner, we will work to increase engagement with wolf conservation in the public and private sectors.
  • In the coming years, TENT will work to connect more people with wild wolves in Europe. We believe that we can create ‘living landscapes’ in Europe, where apex predators maintain ecosystem health while bringing economic benefits to local communities. Already, in Italy’s Abruzzo region and the Spanish Cantabrians, wolf watching tours offer guided wolf observation experiences that financially diversify the local economy. 
  • Local stakeholders need to be engaged, listened to and heard to resolve conflict. We will support INHPL in their efforts to resolve conflict through dialogue, active participation in conservation, and through events and public outreach.

“A mountain with a wolf on it stands a little taller.”

Edward Hoagland, 

Wolves at the edge

Today, though wolf numbers and populations are increasing, we have reached a particularly fraught moment in Europe. As Grey wolf numbers continue to increase, attitudes are becoming more negative, leading to increased conflict. On 24th November, 2022, The European Parliament voted for a resolution to downgrade the conservation status of the wolf under the Bern convention. In Sweden, a cull has recently begun that will half the Scandinavian wolf population. Though Italian wolves number around 3,000, misinformation is brewing, and action is needed more than ever. That is why we are supporting INHPL in their mission, standing by our belief in the ability of large carnivores to regulate healthy ecosystems, to diversify the rural land-use model, and to inspire us all.

Further Reading:

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