no man's land Where the Wild Things Are

Environmentalists want to see a large area in the Western Pomerania region of Germany returned to nature, arguing it could boost the region’s economy by becoming a tourist destination for vacationers seeking a close up view of Europe’s flora and fauna.

The main road to Anklam, a small town in the Western Pomerania region of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, is practically abandoned.  No one seems to have any business or interest in this part of the country. Since the Berlin Wall fell and Germany reunited, population in small towns near the Polish borders has dropped to 13,500 from 20,000. Those who move away leave empty houses in their wake.

That’s good news for Stefan Schwill.

An ecologist working as a consultant for the German environmental aid organization Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH), Mr. Schwill agrees to meet in the dismal parking lot of the local Netto supermarket. For he and his colleagues, Anklam and its environs have the potential to become a future project. “Particularly because nothing is happening economically in this corner of Germany,” he says. “And as people are moving away, nature is being given a fresh chance.”

His words are confirmed on the shores of Szczecin Lagoon, 20 kilometers away from Anklam. Known locally as the Stettiner Haff, the lagoon is a large inland lake where the Oder River flows into the Baltic Sea. Not a soul can be seen, but birds are everywhere.

“If people knew what all is flying around here, there would be ornithological tourism on a massive scale here,” says Mr. Schwill, noting that there are few places in Germany where so more white-tailed eagles are breeding. Common terns can be seen diving into the water while one of the largest breeding colonies of cormorants lies directly on the shore.

The nature reserves around the lagoon remain small and unconnected, but that will change if Mr. Schwill and other conservationists have any say in the matter. Like links in chain, the areas should be joined together, which would double the size of the nature reserve to 247,105.4 acres.

How many animals can survive on a square kilometer? How are predators such as wolves dealt with? And, above all, what role should humans play?

Connecting the areas is only the first step. Conservationists want the area to become wilder, a place where man plays no role in the newly emerging environmental fabric, but where wind, water and wild animals shape the landscape. In addition to rare birds, wild horses, European bison, deer, wolves and elks would again populate the Oder Delta.

“Rewilding Europe” is the name of the conservation movement pursuing the goal of allowing large areas to go wild, attracting tourists and their spending money.

Images of galloping wild horses and snorting wisents, whose populations have to be re-established, or howling wolves, who will return on their own, will attract well-to-do eco-tourists and support the local economy. The conservationists are using those visions of the future to convince area farmers to let wild animals take over their lands.

Seven regions in Europe have been officially designated wilderness by Rewilding Europe. These include the Southern Carpathians in Romania, the Danube Delta on the Black Sea and the Central Apennines in Italy. Three more are scheduled to follow. If the organization has its way there will be a million hectare of wild natural areas by 2020, an area roughly the size of Slovenia. One candidate area is in Northwestern Europe – the Oder Delta. A decision is expected early next year on whether the wetlands have a future as primeval nature. It’s primarily up to the local population whether enough farmland and forest can be transformed into a new wilderness.

Yellowstone National Park in the U.S. and the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania are the models for the Oder Delta, which eventually would offer its own safaris, where lucky tourists and vacationers will see beavers, white-tailed eagles, wolves, European bison, elks, grey seals and salmon. These creatures would be the region’s “Big Seven,” akin to Africa’s famous “Big Five” of lions, rhinoceros, buffalo, elephants and leopards.

Critics say Rewilding Europe seeks to create an unrealistic natural spectacle. They argue the organization isn’t interested in showing how nature truly functions, but instead, seeks large animals capable of capturing the imagination, even if they would never settle in the area on their own.

“If you consider it negatively, you could compare this type of management with Disneyland,” says Sven Herzog, chair of Wildlife Ecology and Management at the Dresden University of Technology. He agrees the area could attract tourists and serve some educational function, noting, “But it won’t be wilderness. It is an artificial landscape.”

Rewilding Europe Director Wouter Helmer counters that the animal species tell a story of wilderness and nature, saying, “This concept just cannot be conveyed so easily with earthworms.” The organization will use large grazing animals as “lawnmowers” and tourist attractions, relying on the experiences with smaller rewilding areas in the Netherlands, Latvia and Bulgaria. Wild horses, cattle and wisents are living in nature reserves there without mankind’s help, though when weather conditions become too extreme, the animals can count on the help of humans.

The plans are more radical for the larger areas in Europe, such as the Rhodope Mountains in Bulgaria, where the animals are left to fend for themselves without human intervention. This type of management has caused controversy year in and year out in the Oostvaardersplassen, a polder area in the Netherlands about 50 kilometers west of Amsterdam, where a population of 4,000 elk, cattle and horses has been living independently for 30 years. The State Forestry Administration has pursued a policy of nonintervention for decades, where the animals either survive the hard life or they die. But in 2010, at the end of an extremely cold winter, a television crew shot footage of a starving elk calf that died before the viewers’ eyes.

Animal lovers, hunters, politicians and average citizens soon developed a new viewpoint. While some argued it was nature taking its harsh course, others countered that it was animal cruelty. Protests against non-intervention were successful. Now, animals too weak to survive are shot by the forestry service, though carcasses are left lying where they fell for scavengers and insects.

The conflict in the Oostvaardersplassen illustrates how little is known about the course of natural processes and what happens when man suddenly transplants large herbivores into an already established ecology. How many animals can survive on a square kilometer? How are predators such as wolves dealt with? And, above all, what role should humans play?

“There is no definitive answer to these questions,” says Dresden University’s Mr. Herzog.

Mr. Schwill the ecologist also expects “a great outcry” in Germany, similar to the reaction in the Netherlands. “People first must get used to animals living in the wild again,” he says. “Dying also is part of that.” But he takes a pragmatic approach. When an elk wanders away from the unfenced reserve and “eats a farmer’s field bare, then something has to be done,” he notes. The farmer should be allowed to shoot the animal.

Will such arguments convince farmers and policymakers? Although nature conservation organizations insist the new wilderness areas will grow the region’s economy, there’s still no plan for how tourism money would wind up in the pockets of the local population, a critical element in moving forward.

“You can only promote the rewilding when the people can make money from it,” says Mr. Schwill, noting this is a common problem for conservation areas in Western countries.

Although it’s possible to generate enough money from nature in Africa, it’s harder to achieve in rich countries, Mr. Herzog says. Those who want to leave nature alone need subsidies, which in turn, leads people to take a negative view: Why isn’t the money being used to invest in new jobs?

If Rewilding Europe decides to include the Oder Delta into its program, the organization will need to be actively involved in the region for two decades. That will be enough time to test whether the concept also works in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.


This article originally appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author: [email protected]