Creating Wildlife Corridors Conservationists Blaze Trails For Wildcats

Biologists are planning what promises to be Central Europe's biggest conservation project. They intend to connect all of Germany's major national parks with woodland corridors to ensure the survival of endangered forest creatures. The wildcat is the poster child of Germany's new environmental offensive.

By Rafaela von Bredow

A receiver hanging around his neck and holding up a small antenna, Thomas Mölich cautiously feels his way through a carpet of wild garlic. Suddenly the equipment picks up a strong signal that appears to be coming from the forest floor, telling Mölich that the animal must be crouching at his feet at this very moment. But when he looks down at the spot, the biologist is deeply disappointed.

There is nothing but low-growing wild garlic wherever Mölich looks. There is no badger's burrow, no pile of brush, in fact, there is not a hiding place in sight. After all the trouble he and his colleagues have taken to catch and tag the animal, has it already managed to lose the transmitter collar? Clearly disappointed, Mölich, a slim man, bends down to search the ground for the stray collar. But then, suddenly, the wildcat jumps up, in front of his nose, and bounds off into the woods.

Wildcats are virtually invisible. "They rely on their coat which provides exceptional camouflage," says Mölich, 42, who has managed the difficult task of capturing nine of the shy predators in the 76 square kilometers (29 square miles) of the Hainich National Park in Germany's eastern state of Thuringia, attached transmitters to the animals and spent the last two-and-a-half years observing them.

Germany's last remaining wildcats could soon become permanently invisible. They have long been absent in some German states, and in others they are considered endangered or threatened with extinction. According to current estimates, there are only about 3,000 to 5,000 wildcats left in Germany today. "We must connect their habitats once again; only then do they stand a chance of surviving," says Mölich. This is exactly what he and biologist Burkhard Vogel, 42, of the Thuringia-based German League for the Environment and Nature Conservation (BUND), are trying to make happen.

Mölich's and Vogel's big plan is to set aside 20,000 kilometers (12,430 miles) of forested or shrub-covered green corridors throughout Germany that would connect the country's various national parks. According to their concept, wild animals could make their way through these green eco-tunnels, which would enable them to expand from their current habitats and settle new ones. According to BUND, this giant green network of paths would be "one of Central Europe's biggest conservation projects."

Of course, Mölich and Vogel are concerned about much more than the wildcat. They hope to see the 50-meter (164-foot) wide primeval forest paths become natural roadways for many species, including badgers, ground beetles, bats, tree frogs, pine martens and butterflies. If the network fails to materialize, that is, if the country's flora and fauna remain limited to nature reserves, between 60 and 70 percent of all native species will be threatened.

'Dissection of the Landscape' Threatens Wildlife

Human activity has eaten its way into Germany's last remaining patches of wilderness. Autobahns, major roads and canals block the paths of wild animals, residential and commercial areas seal off forests and meadows, and farmland chops up habitats into tiny islands too small for many animals to raise their young, hide or hunt. And mankind's thirst for development is far from being quenched, as dozens of hectares of land are being sealed off every day with roads, construction sites and shopping centers.

The "dissection of the landscape," scientists and experts from Germany's Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (BfN) write in an environmental journal, "has become one of the most significant and consistently effective causes of the endangerment of biological diversity in Central Europe."

Where the Wild Things Roam: Germany's new wildlife corridor

Where the Wild Things Roam: Germany's new wildlife corridor

It takes a minimum number of animals that are clearly distinguishable from one another genetically to maintain a population in the long term. But inbreeding poses a problem in many nature reserves which are surrounded by agricultural land. This is particularly the case among wildcats, which require large territories: the study at the Hainich reserve found that the females need about 600 hectares while the males need up to 4,000 hectares.

This isn't the only reason the wildcat is well suited to promoting the idea of a network of paths for wild animals. Notwithstanding its true wildness (wildcats are untamable), the wildcat shares one attribute with the purring housecat: its cuteness (though the housecat's ancestor is a different species altogether: the Nubian Wild Cat). But more important are the ecological reasons that make the European wildcat, or Felis silvestris silvestris, the perfect so-called target species for the corridor concept. The wildcat, a forest animal with a characteristic bobtail, needs a particularly diverse habitat to survive: ideally old-growth forest with trees of varying ages, and a lot of dead wood and brush where it can hide during the day.

The wildcat prefers to stow its typical spring litter of two to five young in hollow tree trunks or old badger burrows. It also likes sunny clearings, the undergrowth along the forest perimeter and blackberry brambles where mice typically frolic. A lurking predator, the wildcat also needs silence, that is, forests undisturbed by mountain bikers constantly charging through the brush.


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