Bear Cubs Going Hungry EU Carcass Laws Starve Europe's Scavengers

An EU regulation designed to stop the spread of BSE has had the unintended effect of starving scavengers, many of which are protected species. Around Europe, vultures, eagles and bears are going hungry due to a lack of carrion. Now animal activists are demanding action.

In some parts of Europe -- such as the Iberian Peninsula, northern Italy and Eastern Europe -- you can still find vultures, golden eagles, wolves and bears. They capture rats or snakes or whatever else they can get to eat.

Since the quantity of fresh meat available is insufficient, these predators also turn their attention to the carcasses of dead wild and farm animals. The species are officially under strict protection, and the European Union spends several million euros every year to help them. Now, though, these rare animals are threatened with extinction owing to a well-intended but ill-conceived regulation introduced by bureaucrats in Brussels.

The document -- Regulation 1774/2002 -- dates from the year 2002. At that time, the fear of BSE or mad cow disease was rampant in Europe and the EU issued a number of new directives to protect the population as much as possible from exposure to the epidemic. Scientists believe humans can contract the disease, in the form of the fatal Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), if they consume infected meat.

As part of these new regulations, it was decreed that dead cows, sheep, goats and horses would in the future need to be disposed of in a licensed animal disposal facilities. Up until that time, this had by no means been the usual practice, particularly in Mediterranean countries. Animals who died in remote mountain pastures or in far-flung highland valleys were either left where they were or were taken to designated carcass dumps. This was the case in Spain, for example, where such dumps are known as "muladares." Eagles, vultures, wolves and, in particular, brown bears used to look forward to finding carrion -- when it was still available.

For bears, the carcasses were particularly important. Before going into hibernation in the fall and even more so when they emerge in the spring, bears have great problems finding food. For this reason, carrion is "important for survival," according to a recent study conducted by the Germany-based European Nature Heritage Fund (Euronatur)  together with the Spanish animal protection organization Fapas .

But since EU Regulation 1774/2002 went into force, there hasn't been a whole lot of carrion lying around. In the brown bear's territory in the Spanish province of Asturias, for example, about 4,000 cow carcasses which would have otherwise been left lying in meadows are now being disposed of annually in animal carcass disposal facilities. As a result, scavengers have to make do with 210 metric tons less food each year. The result, according to the Euronatur researchers, is "a drastic increase in undernourished bear cubs."

Short of Food

Eagles and vultures are also suffering as a result of the new food shortage. However the regulatory officials in Brussels recognized their plight relatively quickly and introduced in May 2003 an exception that permits animal carcasses to be laid out in special, fenced-off feeding areas. But as there are still not enough of these feeding stations -- in actual fact, thousands would be necessary to meet animals' needs -- eagles and vultures can no longer find enough to eat.

This lack of food has led a number of vultures in Spain to change their eating habits. Although the birds have occasionally attacked newborn, sick and unmoving animals, this has become far more frequent in recent years.

Farmers who were previously happy to leave dead animals to the scavengers are less keen to see the birds come after living animals and have called on Spanish officials to increase pressure on EU officials to amend the regulation.

Hunger has also driven many of the vultures out of Spain and into areas where they are not native. Flocks of the large scavengers, whose wingspan can reach 3 meters (9.8 feet), have been sighted in Germany, Belgium and France.

But even this long trip doesn't bring them to a land of plenty -- there aren't enough feeding stations in these locations, either. In this way, though, the vultures are at least expanding the habitat of the species and thereby reducing the demand for carcasses in their original territory.

For the bears, though, emigration is no solution. They can't get into the fenced-off bird feeding stations, and a 1,000-kilometer (621-mile) trip is out of the question.

It appears that no one in Brussels has given the plight of the bears much thought. For this reason, the environmentalists from Euronatur and their Spanish colleagues from Fapas sent the results of their study to the EU officials responsible for such matters -- Health Commissioner Markos Kyprianou and Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas -- in early December and demanded "urgent" amendments to Regulation 1774/2002. The activists said that the changes "would in no way jeopardize the population's safety from the epidemic."

There has yet to be any reported case of BSE among horses, asses or mules, the activists say, meaning their carcasses can be left in pastures without risk. And even dead cows can be left in the traditional Spanish carcass dumps, just as in the past, without any problems, as long as the herd has not had any cases of BSE and the dead animals are younger than two years old.

The EU commissioners have yet to respond to the activists' letter.

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