An Expedition in Germany – Wolf Monitoring through Citizen Science
Location: Lüneburg Heath – Germany,
Story by: Matthias Hammer
The wolf returned to Germany at the turn of the millennium. It continues to spread throughout the country. The non-profit citizen science and wildlife conservation organisation Biosphere Expeditions offers people from all walks of life the chance to support the monitoring of this species with an annual expedition in the state of Lower Saxony.
The return of the wolf to Germany is seen as a threat by many. The conversation is by and large dominated by vocal anti-wolf campaigners who invoke dangers instead of opportunities. This is something Dr Matthias Hammer would like to change. In his view, tourism and particularly citizen science tourism are an opportunity to protect endangered species such as sea turtles, elephants and wolves too. Based on 20 years of experience with large carnivore expeditions around the world, his non-profit organisation Biosphere Expeditions offered the first German expedition focused on wolves in Lower Saxony in 2017.
“Being a wolf country not only brings challenges, but also opportunities.”
Once a year, the famously picturesque Lüneburg Heath becomes the place of work for German and international citizen scientists who join the expedition. Up to 12 participants from all over the world come together for a week to help collect important data and samples that are needed for official monitoring efforts. At the beginning of the expedition, citizen scientists are trained by researchers. They learn how to record wolf tracks and signs, such as scats (wolf droppings), following the stringent scientific protocol of the state’s official wolf monitoring programme. After two training days, they then go out in small groups to gather wolf scats and record other wolf signs.
The expeditions are conducted in cooperation with the “Wolfsbüro Niedersachsen”, the Lower Saxony government institution responsible for wolf monitoring in the state, who defines areas of interest for the expedition and helps to train expedition participants. The expeditions are a way of supporting wolf conservation in Germany by funnelling money and resources into labour-intensive field research. Biosphere Expeditions guarantees that at least two-thirds of the participants’ fees go directly into the project and documents this, and the scientific work done, in the expedition report.
Citizen Science is defined as the collection and analysis of data relating to the natural world by members of the general public, typically as part of a collaborative project with professional scientists. In wildlife conservation, the range of possibilities is huge, from ‘counting days’ where thousands of citizens report numbers of species, to more detailed tasks such as reporting animal sightings or helping to collect data in the field (with camera traps or personally). The strategy that works best depends on the data needed. To ensure the reliability of the data, citizen scientists need to be trained properly. Citizen science also offers opportunities in large carnivore monitoring – for example with an open reporting system on sightings or as described above.
The monitoring of certain species delivers a collection of relevant data about numbers and behaviours of individuals and populations. The knowledge about the development of a population delivers a reliable base for decisions about their management and allows a planning according to the actual circumstances. There is a range of monitoring methods as well as there are various technical systems to collect and store the data. One method to deal with the different categories of evidence is SCALP /with the categories C1, C2, C3). One scientifically proven tool to monitor large carnivores is the Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool (SMART).
“Our citizen scientists help on two levels: by collecting valuable scientific data and through financing the project as a whole. The wealth of extra data our expeditioners collected shows how much citizen science can achieve and how much it is capable of adding to official wolf monitoring efforts.”
Although there were a lot of doubters before the first expedition, especially amongst the vocal anti-wolf lobby, the results exceeded all expectations. The data collected in 2017 helped to genetically identify one wolf pack and the expedition of 2018 doubled the official state wolf scat monitoring database. The participants’ work helped to gain important insights into wolf diet in the area. For example, no trace of livestock was found in the wolf scats collected.
The success and the growing popularity of the wolf demonstrate that one perspective of the wolf debate in Germany is usually ignored: The fascination with the wolf is an opportunity for sustainable tourism in Germany and that the species is as interesting for people as are lions in Africa, elephants in Thailand and the brown bear in Sweden.