Following Ancient Trails: Elks Make a Dangerous Comeback in Germany

European elks are using their impressive swimming skills to cross the Oder River from Poland into Germany in search of new territory. But the long-legged giants, which can weigh up to 800 kilograms, are finding their ancient trails broken by busy roads. A motorist killed one on a highway near Berlin this weekend.

An European elk in captivity in a wildlife park in Brandenburg. Zoom
DPA

An European elk in captivity in a wildlife park in Brandenburg.

The European elk, a species of moose, is venturing back into Germany, swimming across the Oder River from Poland and making its way along ancient forest trails known to it for generations.

Unfortunately, those trails are crossed by roads and motorways these days. On Saturday, an elk was run over and killed on the A10 motorway a few kilometers outside Berlin.

"We didn't believe the calls at first," said a police spokesman. "We've never had a case like this." The animal had smashed through a wildlife fence and was hit by a VW Polo. It survived the collision but was then run over by a truck. The driver of the VW was injured and had to be taken to the hospital.

The long-legged giants, which can weigh up to 800 kilograms (1,764 pounds), are indigenous to North America and Scandinavia. They were common in Germany in the Middle Ages but are a rare sight here today. However, Saturday's accident follows dozens of sightings of elks in Germany over the past year and suggests that the animals, which are known to be highly adaptable, may be making a comeback in Germany, like wolves have over the last decade.

Poland has a growing elk population which currently numbers some 5,000, and some of them are evidently feeling crowded and heading west. But experts say Germany doesn't offer elks enough free space, and that many of the newcomers are likely to wind up dead or swim back across to Poland.

An estimated 10 elks are roaming the German state of Brandenburg, which surrounds Berlin and borders Poland, said Ina Martin, a biologist who conducts research into the wildlife in the state.

'Germany Doesn't Offer Ideal Living Conditions'

"Elks in Poland are expanding their territory by coming here. They are very good swimmers, so crossing the Oder or Neisse (River) isn't a problem for them," Martin told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "Every animal uses traditional trails passed on from generation to generation. If a motorway is in the way they will either try to cross it or find a new route."

Martin expects increasing numbers of elks to come over, and some of them may settle in quiet corners of the state. "But we don't expect a major elk population to settle here. Germany doesn't offer them ideal living conditions because our land is totally dissected by motorways and busy roads," she said.

In Sweden, elks are so common that they are wandering into suburbs and stealing apples, but encounters with the beasts in Germany are likely to remain rare, said Martin.

They are shy but can become dangerous if they feel threatened, especially in the case of mothers with calves or bull elks during the mating season.

'Don't Run After an Elk'

"If you come across an elk while looking for mushrooms or walking in the forest, you should under no circumstances make the mistake of running after it because it could turn and attack," said Martin.

Her department at the Forst Eberswalde Regional Competence Center has been conducting research into elk numbers and devising a contingency plan in case the number of accidents involving elks starts increasing. The last traffic accident involving an elk in Brandenburg was recorded in August 2000.

"If incidents increase, we may have to think about raising fence heights or putting up those much sought-after Swedish elk signs here," said Martin. "The problem with elks is their proportions. They have very long legs, which means that in a frontal collision, you drive into the legs and the body falls onto the car. Given the weight of the animals this can wreck the vehicle and cause very serious injuries to drivers."

Currently, however, elks pose fewer problems than another, much smaller species which is spreading like wildfire in Germany -- raccoons. They may not be lethal, but the little bear-like creatures, which look like bandits with mask-like patches around their eyes, are making a nuisance of themselves by moving into attics, raiding dustbins and eating protected species such as the pond turtle.

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