Conserving Europe’s carnivores

Large carnivores have had a complicated relationship with humans. For much of history they have been persecuted as competitors, and out of fear and ignorance. Yet favourable legislation in the European Union has recently allowed these species to re-establish in many parts of the continent. This recovery has created a range of challenges for many people with whom they share the landscape.


Wolf (Canis lupus) Photo: John Linnell/NINA

The Wolf (Canis lupus), the Eurasian Lynx (Lynx lynx), the Iberian Lynx (Lynx pardinus), the Brown Bear (Ursus arctos) and the Wolverine (Gulo gulo) are the large carnivores that still exist in Europe. Over recent centuries they have been heavily persecuted by humans for a range of reasons, which led to historic lows in their distribution and density in the mid 20th century. 

Because of their predatory habits large carnivores need very large areas (individuals ranging over areas as large as 100-2,000 km²) and their conservation needs to be planned on very wide spatial scales which span many intra- and international administrative and jurisdictional borders.

The Habitats Directive, adopted by the European Union around 20 years ago, protects the five European large carnivore species to varying degrees and provides some continental scale harmonization of legislation. This legislation has made it possible for the carnivores to come back in some parts of Europe and to reinforce their presence where they already occurred. Such increases in species numbers have been the cause for some conflicts with local people and stakeholders who share the same territory in some areas of Europe. Due to the diversity of European situations and landscapes there are no management approaches that work in all contexts. Reintegrating large carnivores into the fabric of the European countryside therefore requires making a number of adjustments to practices of many sectors.

The project Support to the European Commission’s policy on Large Carnivores under the Habitats Directive – Phase two commissioned by the Environment Directorate-General of the European Commission is being carried out by the Istituto di Ecologia Applicata (IEA), closely connected with the IUCN Species Survival Commission’s Large Carnivore Initiative for Europe (LCIE). The project is a follow-up to previous activities which IEA has implemented on behalf of LCIE and builds on the extensive experience and documentation produced by past studies and initiatives on the same topic.

The overall objective of the project is to identify practical approaches to help ensure a favourable conservation status of the main European large carnivore species and to secure their coexistence with humans by reducing conflicts where they arise. The project has the following specific objectives:

  • Produce and discuss in a stakeholder workshop, key EU-level conservation actions for each large carnivore species with a population level approach;
  • Implement four pilot actions on human-large carnivores conflict resolution at the population level;
  • Plan and implement an awareness raising strategy to promote the EU's Large Carnivore Initiative.

The IUCN European Union Representative Office is responsible, along with a group of experts working for the subcontractor Norwegian Institute for Nature Research (NINA), for the development of the communication strategy for the project. The key objective of the communication strategy is to increase the awareness and understanding of key stakeholders and general public’s regarding large carnivore conservation and conflict resolution.

Did you know?

  • The largest population of Brown Bears is in the Carpathian mountains (> 8 000 individuals) and one of the smallest is in the Alps (approx. 22 individuals);
  • Half of the lynx populations in Europe stem from reintroductions carried out in the 1970s and 1980s;
  • In Europe, wolves occur in all countries except in the island states (Ireland, Iceland, United Kingdom, Cyprus, Malta) and the Benelux countries;
  • Wolverines mainly get their food from scavenging large animals killed by other predators;
  • The most important threats for all four large carnivores in Europe are: low acceptance among the rural communities, illegal killings, habitat fragmentation due to infrastructure development, and poor wildlife management structures. Climate change poses a threat to wolverines.
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