Scientific work combined with working with people is the formula of success in nature conservation
Location: Ljubljana – Slovenia,
Story by: Alexandra & Tomaž Skrbinšek
Aleksandra Majić Skrbinšek and Tomaž Skrbinšek are scientists living and working together in Ljubljana, at the Biology Department of Biotechnical Faculty, University of Ljubljana. For almost 20 years, the focus of their studies has been large carnivore populations and their protection in the narrow, highly populated European Continent.
We both started as veterinary medicine students who loved animals, but soon we realized it is not the medicinal part of our studies that interest us the most, but the ecology of wild animals. We met in Budapest as students and we traveled a lot together, through Asia and New Zealand where we got involved in a study of a species of seals. There we were sure that wild animals and their ecology interest us far more than the domestic ones.
Tomaž’s first job was with wild cats, at the university of Ljubljana where we both now work. Once his team caught a lynx and put a telemetry collar on it, so Tomaž decided to do his master thesis on lynx. Since no one knew much about lynx at that time, it took them more than two years of strolling around the woods in the snow until they got a grip on how to catch lynx and get some reliable data. During that time, Tomaž was working as a translator and doing scientific research as a hobby, for some 5 years. But then he got a chance to actually get paid for scientific work – it was a bear genetics project in 2004. That’s how he entered the field of genetics and molecular ecology, and switched the woods for a laboratory. Now it’s less woods and laboratory, and more computer and research work, but the job is still very interesting and fulfilling.
Aleksandra had a chance to work in Canada, where everything is different than in Europe. There is still enough wilderness, so that wild animals can live in their natural habitat, while people live in a “tamer” environment. In Europe this is not the case. There is not enough untamed wilderness, so humans and large carnivores are condemned to live like room-mates in the narrow old continent. That is why Aleksandra has put scientific focus on this coexistence of humans and large carnivores, determined to make it work.
“Hunting” for coexistence
Although hunters have often been perceived by the general (especially urban) public as the enemy of nature conservation, our experience has proved them to be on “our” side of the equation. This is especially the case in Slovenia, where the economic side of the hunting is not as emphasized, as it is in most Western European countries. For nature conservation, the Slovenian model is far better. Slovenian hunters still refer to their association as an organization for nature protection, and are putting a great effort in maintaining the health of their hunting grounds and their game. In Slovenia, it was the hunters who first protected wolf and bear, even before the State did. And they were the ones who initiated the reintroduction of lynx in 1973. So nowadays it is simply wrong to say that hunters in general are to blame for inflicting damage to large carnivores. Of course, there are also hunters who consider large carnivores to be their competition especially in countries where hunting is primarily seen as a business and wolves are nothing but a nuisance. But still, our field research shows that both in Slovenia and Croatia, hunters are the ones with the widest knowledge about large carnivores and very often provide us scientists with invaluable information on their presence and behavior. They also help us to gather samples and catch animals for telemetric marking and research.. We can almost say that there are as many misconceptions about hunters as there are about wolves! That’s why we shouldn’t waste energy on moral disputes between hunters and so-called green activists. We are basically all on the same side and that’s how we should act. Hunting in itself is not in conflict with nature protection, it can even be a good conservation tool if used wisely. Instead of fighting, we should all cooperate and work together in management and preservation of our nature and those magnificent animals.
Our main professional interest and motivation is to contribute to finding effective solutions to conservation problems. In our 20 years of professional experience we have worked on different nature conservation and research projects, mainly in Slovenia and Croatia. Our focus has been mainly on large carnivores. While Tomaž’s main filed of work is genetics and molecular ecology, Aleksandra focused her studies on human dimensions of wildlife management, especially public participation in decision-making and studies of public attitudes towards large carnivore species.
In our 20 years’ work, we can note a significant progress in the attitude of people towards nature, but it is still difficult to be really optimistic. Most people still don’t see us humans as part of the natural world and most of their attitudes are still largely selfish. We don’t deeply understand how important Nature is for our own existence. Natural issues are still considered to be somewhat marginal, on the level of hobby or activism… It is difficult to understand that all of the pieces of the great ecological mosaic (one of them being also large carnivores) must fit into the picture to make it whole.
That’s why we believe that although it is important to educate people and raise their awareness, we also have to set some clear and firm rules. We need management plans, also for large carnivores, that tell people what to do and how to do it. We should also concentrate on developing green politics, no matter how hard they gain political points. We humans are still not really considering the consequences of our way of living, we are not asking ourselves: what kind of a world are we going to leave for our children?
We have to keep on trying, insisting, researching, teaching and reaching out to the public, as well as setting clear rules. There’s no other way to protect the world that we all live in.
Managing large carnivores comes down to managing conflicts
Keywords in managing any conflict are dialog and understanding. To understand, first we must learn – do the research, analyze results, draw conclusions. Then we have to focus our efforts on the people – create opportunities for dialogue in search of solutions. Most of the science we do is applicative, focused on conservation and management.
Living with bears
The bear has always been a hunted species, and controlled hunting is still one of the main measures for managing bear populations. Bears are big opportunists – they can survive on almost anything, they practically eat whatever they can find, are not as territorial as wolves – one bear does not exclude other bears from its territory. In densely populated areas of Europe it often means that their populations need to be controlled to keep their numbers within what can be tolerated by people.. When population control is discussed population size estimate is a crucial piece of information. One of our success stories is the genetic counting of bears in Slovenia. Until we had the genetic census for the first time, the main issue about bears in media was how many were there? It was only after the genetic estimate that these speculations became secondary and we could finally talk more about the real bear issues: coexistence, damages in agriculture, garbage, bees… things that really matter. Of course, it’s not just the number of bears that’s the issue; it’s also how they behave and how many opportunities they have to get into conflict with people. And how much of that people can tolerate. Management has to address all these issues but the size of the population is certainly one of the basic parameters without which the other issues have difficulties coming into focus. That’s why we have to count the bears regularly and control their population in order to have a healthy bear population and a peaceful coexistence with humans.
Living with wolves
We started genetic counting of wolves in Slovenia in 2010, and have been working continuously on it ever since. Today we practically know the name and family name of every wolf in Slovenia. There are over 100 wolves in Slovenia at the moment, and the population has been growing and spreading over the last several decades. Some of our wolves have been dispersing to the neighboring countries, such as Italy (many people have already heard of our legendary wolf Slavc that traveled 2000 km to settle down on the other side of the Alps). We know that two of his sons returned to Slovenia; one of them started his own thriving pack in the Alps, near the lakes Bohinj and Bled. So, the wolves are a success story from Natures point of view. Like bears, they are opportunists – they turn to easy prey, such as unprotected sheep rather than go through the trouble of hunting wild animals that run away. They are ecologically a very plastic species, that’s their secret. They can survive almost everywhere; they eat whatever there is and they are also very smart. That’s why livestock breeders don’t like them – wolves can be very unpleasant neighbors, not easily outsmarted.
Peoples’ negative attitudes towards wolves are also amplified by misconceptions. One of the common ones is belief that wolves are very bloodthirsty animals – when they get a chance to kill, they’ll do it just for fun. Of course, that is not true. Wolves have evolved with prey that can run very fast or even fight back and wolves really have to put a huge effort into hunting their next meal. It takes a lot of their energy, so whenever they get a chance for an easy kill, they take it. It is called “surplus killing” and it often takes place when a wolf breaks into a sheepfold. Of course, when people find as many as forty sheep slaughtered, they imagine a raging pack of bloodthirsty animals, while in fact, it could have been just one hungry wolf grabbing a chance to ensure more than just one meal for itself and its family. This knowledge doesn’t help the farmer who lost his sheep, bit it helps to change the larger publics perspective on wolves and in finding suitable solutions to preventing damages in agriculture.
In the Dinaric part of Slovenia, we have started implementing protection measures such as livestock guarding dogs and electric fences in 2010, and it has been a great success – the number of damages immediately dropped significantly. A good indicator of the success of those measures is the fact that today we have less damage from wolves then in 2010, while the number of wolves has increased three times! Of course, the damages will never come to zero – as long as we have large carnivores and livestock living in the same area, some damages are inevitable, but as long as we manage to keep the damages at an acceptable rate, the coexistence should be possible.
In the Alps the landscape configuration is different, which makes the feasibility of using electric fences questionable. That leaves us with the use of shepherds and livestock guarding dogs, with the latter posing another problem: they can be a threat to mountaineers that “invade” Slovenian Alps in large numbers during weekends and holydays. There are attempts to copy some experiences from other parts of the Alps, which are neither simple, nor cheap. So far, the best results have been achieved with having shepherds accompany the livestock at all times. Of course, the shepherds need to get paid and they need shelters in the mountains, so the whole system is not economically sustainable and needs financial support. We hope we’ll come up with some sustainable solution, to have our “wolves full, and our sheep whole”.
The conflict between people and wolves has been with us forever, and is going to stay with us for as long as both species are around. For the survival of wolves as a species it is crucial to come up with a good set of management rules and protection measures that will make this conflict tolerable and the coexistence sustainable. We should not be focused on the survival of each individual animal, thus creating an even deeper conflict, but rather on achieving a balance between people and wolves.
Lynx differs from the other two large carnivore species by its vulnerability. It is not an opportunist, it cannot eat whatever it finds, and it is territorial which means that one lynx excludes others from its territory. That’s why it needs a big territory with suitable prey for survival, and that’s why it already once became extinct in our parts. Lynx is an ecological specialist, and in our landscapes cannot survive on prey other than medium-sized ungulates. For its way of life, it needs vast, healthy wild habitats.,
An important scientific breakthrough was in our research of lynx genetics – through the DinaRis Interreg project. In a research done in tight collaboration between Slovenian and Croatian researchers, we found genetic deterioration and critical levels of inbreeding in our lynx population, which provided scientific foundation for a new project – Life Lynx with the purpose of reinforcing our inbred and declining lynx population with “fresh” genetic material from Carpathian Mountains.
The Life Lynx project is specifically aimed at helping lynx survive – we are literarily saving the population. We know that without our efforts, our lynx population would almost certainly go extinct. In the first phase of the project we investigated the current state, the “baseline” of our Dinaric lynx population, to know exactly where we are. And it didn’t look good. In the second phase we introduced new animals with fresh genetic material to our population and are now monitoring the process of their settlement and gathering experience on this kind of “population improvement”. The project is going very well so far, some of our new males already have offspring and we are starting to build hopes for the success of the third phase. The idea for the third phase of the project is to make a long-term plan for keeping the population healthy and stable. It is still too early to make predictions about the success of the project, but we are doing our best, taking one step at the time.