The Return of Wolves to Germany: "Fears Are Being Stoked"

At least 20 wolves are now roaming the heaths of Lusatia, a region along the German-Polish border. Latent fears of the big bad wolf are remerging, but biologists say the animal is misunderstood. DER SPIEGEL spoke to Ilka Reinhardt of "Lupus," a German group of wildlife biologists, about the simmering conflict over the wolves.

What with the three little pigs, Red Riding Hood and her poor old grandma, the wolf has had a pretty bad press through the years. But many biologists insist that the wolf is just misunderstood, and is really a shy creature, who's first reaction when faced with a human is to run away rather than try to bite a leg off.

Now the reappearance of wolves in the eastern German region of Lusatia, which includes parts of both the states of Brandenburg and Saxony, has brought out this old collective fear. Wolves were first spotted (again) in the area back in 1998, and are thought to have migrated from western Poland. Since then at least two packs of around 10 animals each are thought to be in the region, although researchers can't be sure that there aren’t more.

Wolves had slowly died out in much of Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. But there are now isolated groups of wolves in Spain, Portugal, Italy and France and bigger populations in eastern and Central Europe. It is thought that there are around 500 to 600 wolves in Poland, mainly in the east. Germany had killed off its wolf population by the beginning of the 20th century but now the animal is back.

Last week the German Environment Ministry held a meeting "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" to discuss the reappearance of the wolf. Junior Enviornment Minister Astrid Klug opened the meeting by saying that the return of the wolf to its natural habitat was an "encouraging sign for animal protection."

However, a campaign has been launched by the "Sicherheit und Artenschutz" (Security and Species Protection) association to have the wolves shot because they may pose a danger to people. The group was set up by local hunters who say it is only a matter of time before someone gets hurt. Biologists in the research group "Lupus" have accused the group of whipping up latent fears of wolves. Lupus says it has documented 250 encounters between people and wolves in the Lusatia region and there were no problems in any of the cases.

DER SPIEGEL spoke with Ilka Reinhardt, a member of the Lupus team, about the conflict over the wolves of Lusatia.

SPIEGEL: "Who's afraid of the big bad wolf?" That was the theme of a meeting at the German Environment Ministry this week. How great was the fear?

Reinhardt: The mood in Berlin was very positive. The roughly 20 wolves we have in the Muskau and Neustadt heathlands are considered a great boon for nature conservation.

SPIEGEL: But there is contention in the region itself, in Lusatia?

Reinhardt: The association "Sicherheit und Artenschutz" (Security and Species Protection) is stoking fears in a massive way. They're even bringing in people from abroad who will sing from the same hymn sheet …

SPIEGEL: … and who predict, in Germany's mass-circulation daily Bild, that children will soon be slain by the wolves.

Reinhardt: That's fear-mongering. It is extremely rare for wolves to attack humans. One needs to be careful when the animals have rabies or when they've gotten too used to humans -- when they're fed, for example. None of this is the case in Lusatia. The animals avoid humans.

SPIEGEL: Hunters are complaining that the wolves are causing economic damage.

Reinhardt: Shepherds are entitled to compensation payments. And in any case there are probably more deer and wild boars here than ever before. Still individual members of Saxony's regional hunters association continue to stoke the conflict. But I'm optimistic. There are 500 wolves in Italy, and Spain has more than 2,000. There, the animals have long been considered part of normality. The same will happen here.

SPIEGEL: Will the wolves continue to spread in Germany?

Reinhardt: We're expecting it. Twenty young wolves have already left the pack. We don't know where they've ended up. But there are certainly regions in eastern Germany, and also in some low mountain ranges in western Germany, that would be suitable for wolves.

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