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.

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."

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.

Corridors Are Vital for the Wildcat's Survival

Scientists hope that it is precisely the diversity of the wildcat's territory that will prompt many other species to use the green wildlife corridors.

Biologist Mölich discovered the wildcat's paths and favorite spots when he followed nine test animals fitted with transmitters with his antenna and receiver in the Hainich reserve. He discovered that the corridors are more than just a pleasant place for the predators to take a stroll. In fact, they are critical to its survival. Even the most itinerant cat, which Mölich named "Beckman," while easily covering 25 kilometers (16 miles) through the Hainich reserve, refused to set as much as a paw onto the surrounding farmland. "There have to be trees," says Mölich, "probably as a place to escape."

Thus, the planned cat corridors will have to offer three features: trees, light and many places to hide. These elements are characteristic of the typical habitat along the forest edge: a center consisting of trees of varying heights, piles of brush and dead wood underneath, a ring of bushes and thick brambles, and an outer perimeter consisting of a strip of wild herbs.

The networking concept is nothing new. In fact, it was even written into Germany's 2002 Federal Nature Conservation Act as a requirement. The BfN has already defined habitat corridors for all of Germany. But the problem is that nature conservation in Germany is left up to the individual states. Anything that smells of the federal government trying to impose its will on the states quickly provokes distrust and resistance. To overcome the states' misgivings, the BfN cautiously describes its concept as a "guideline for initiatives." BUND, on the other hand, can be far more aggressive than federal agencies in formulating national plans.

On Tuesday the organization presented its idea of a network to save wild animals to Eckhard Uhlenberg, the environment minister of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, who is currently chair of the conference of state environment ministers. On Nov. 1, teams will already begin planting thousands of saplings south of the Hainich reserve, the first phase in an effort to enable wildcats and other wildlife to make the journey to the Thuringian Forest. Red posts have already been installed to mark the path.

Only about 20 kilometers (12 miles) separate Hainich, a wildcat paradise, from the Thuringian Forest, a place frequented by only the occasional cat, presumably coming from the state of Hesse to the west. In the rolling countryside between the two reserves lie the Hörsel Mountains, a stepping-stone for cats bound for Thuringian Forest. Through careful selection of the corridor route and the incorporation of small groves of trees and bushes, as well as the use of the natural vegetation lining the banks of the Nesse River as a guideline, only about 1,200 meters (3,937 feet) of farmland remain between the edge of the Hainich reserve and the forests of the Hörsel Mountains.

Offsetting Construction with Environmental Protection

Road construction, of all things (the rerouting of the A4 Autobahn to the area north of the Hörsel Mountains), is helping pave the way for wildcats in Thuringia -- while at the same time providing a model for implementation of the remaining network of paths throughout Germany. Under German law, anyone who disturbs the natural environment, through road construction, for instance, must make up for it by creating a new natural environment elsewhere. Officials at BUND reason that it makes more sense to do so by contributing to the wildcat path instead of planting a few trees or hedges along rural paths that lead into villages -- dead ends for the wildcats and other local wildlife.

The only hitch is that the farmers who own the land must agree to these offsetting measures on their fields. "But they're no fools," says Vogel. "They much prefer to be part of something that promises to be a success." And what about zoning authorities? "They too," says Vogel, "want to know in advance which environmental protection measures to incorporate into their plans." The path network concept also makes it possible to connect wild animal tunnels under major highways and Autobahns to the corridors -- yet another advantage. The concept has been so successful at the Hainich reserve that the scientists involved are literally brimming with optimism.

But when BUND's conservationists are asked how precisely the map of the path network reflects the actual course of the planned corridors, they nervously add that there could certainly be "a few kilometers of deviation." They are acutely aware that their concept will not settle the age-old conflict between conservation and land use. Not all farmers will be willing to sacrifice a 50-meter corridor through their land for the wildcat.

Part of the reason is that no one can prove that the Hainich wildcats will in fact travel along the carefully planted forest corridors. But a lot depends on these wildcats' behavior, because the Thuringian tree corridor will have to serve as a model for the rest of Germany.

Corridor visionary Mölich, lost in thought, listens to the deep rattling noise of a raven, and looks up at the Hörsel Mountains and along the strip of no-man's land demarcated by red posts -- his strip of land.

The fallow land is filled with purple creeping thistle, yellow dandelions and sprouting mayweed, and it seems hard to imagine that trees will soon grow here. "I wish it were like the Asterix comic books, where the Gauls simply dip acorns into a magic potion, throw them on the ground and, before you know it, oak trees are suddenly shooting out of the ground."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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