by Hannah Ritchie
May 23, 2022
and habitat loss
drove many large
mammals in Europe
continent's mammal populations
European bison is the continent's largest herbivore.
It was once abundant
across the region. Archaeological evidence suggests that the bison
was widespread, stretching from France to Ukraine, down to the tip
of the Black Sea. 1
The earliest fossils date
back to the Early Holocene period - around 9,000 BC.
Bison populations steadily declined over millennia, but experienced
the most dramatic decline over the last 500 years.
Deforestation and hunting
of this iconic mammal nearly drove it to extinction. Look at old
cave paintings and we find that hunters had etched bison next to
bison in charcoal.
They had gone extinct,
Hungary by the 16th century
in Ukraine by the 18th century
the early 20th century they had gone completely extinct in the wild,
with only tens of individuals kept in captivity...
The overhunting of
the bison is no outlier. It's part of a long history. Look at the
size of mammals through millions of years of human history and
we find that they get smaller and smaller.
Humans preferentially hunted the largest mammals, often to
This is still the
It is the largest mammals that are most threatened by
But it doesn't have
to be this way, and the bison shows it.
The European bison has made
an impressive comeback over the last 50 years. Successful
conservation efforts have seen their numbers rebound. Europe is now
home to more than 2500 of them.
It's not the only
Across the world, we find examples of successful conservation
programs that have restored animal populations.
Here I look at the
change in mammal populations across Europe.
Many species are making
Once on the brink,
iconic animals such as the European bison, Brown bear, and elk are
thriving once again.
Most mammals across Europe have made a comeback over the last 50
By the first half
of the 20th century, many of Europe's mammals had been reduced to
just a fraction of their historical levels.
Millennia of hunting,
exploitation, and habitat loss had forced them into decline. Many
had been wiped out completely. But most mammal
populations have seen a dramatic increase over the last 50 years.
In 2013, a
coalition of conservation organizations, including the,
...published a report on how mammal populations across Europe had
changed since 1960.
They looked at the
change in populations of 18 mammal species.
The results are shown in
the far below chart...
There are more than
30 times the number of European bisons alive today than there were
There are more than
twice as many Brown bears.
Three times as many Eurasian elks.
times as many Red deer.
Eurasian beaver has made the most remarkable recovery.
estimated to have increased by 140-fold since 1960.
There were only
around 2400 beavers left in Europe in 1960.
Today there are
more than 330,000.
This study only included data for studied
countries in Europe.
When we take Eurasia as a whole, it is
estimated that there are well over one million beavers.
All species but one
Iberian lynx - have significantly increased in numbers.
Despite its 50-year decline, there is recent positive news for the
Over the last
has been making a remarkable recovery.
So much so that the
IUCN moved it from
Critically Endangered to Endangered on the Red List in 2015.
these mammal population estimates come from?
Long-term monitoring of wildlife populations is
difficult. The methods used and the quality of estimates
can change and improve over time.
assessment, for each mammal, researchers drew on
published studies that assessed the most recent
population estimates, and the change over time.
are population estimates that are included in the
Living Planet Index.
address the limitations of changes in data collection,
the authors only include analyses where the same methods
are applied over the same time series, and the data is
transparent and traceable.
means that the data coverage may vary from
some species we have good estimates for all countries in
Europe where it is present. For other species, it may
only be a subset of countries where it can be found.
example here is the Eurasian beaver: the study did not
include consistent data for beaver populations across
some parts of Russia and it populations outside of
Europe, in Asia.
means the total figure for Eurasian beavers does not
reflect the complete total.
However, the change
over time is reflective of the true change across the
countries and regions include i.e. the geographical
scope of the estimates in the start and end year are the
authors do not include the starting (e.g. 1960)
population levels for each mammal species in absolute
terms in the report.
Instead, they report the latest
estimate (e.g. for 2011) for each species; and the
estimated level of increase since the baseline year
combined both of these numbers to estimate the
population levels in the baseline year.
example, they estimate that there were 2759 European
bison in the latest estimate, and that populations have
increased by 3000% since 1960.
calculate that this would mean there were around 89
European bisons in 1960.
We get this as:
[ 2759 / (3000%
+ 100%) ] = 89.
are estimates and come with some uncertainty.
overstate the level of precision, I have rounded the
figures for the start year to the nearest ten, hundred
or thousand depending on the population size for each
Effective conservation and
reintroduction programs have allowed mammal populations to flourish
How did Europe
achieve this impressive recovery of mammal populations?
In short, stopping
the activities that were killing mammals off in the first place.
Effective protection against hunting, overexploitation, and the
destruction of habitats have been key.
land use has declined across Europe over the last 50 years.
natural habitats to return where agriculture had previously taken
It is a point
high agricultural productivity is key to protecting
We need to produce
more from less so that we can leave wild spaces for the world's
animals to flourish.
development was to stop hunting them.
Countries brought in effective
protection policies such as,
complete bans on hunting or hunting
designated areas with legal protections
patrols to catch
compensation schemes for the reproduction of
Most mammals are
now listed under various region-wide protection schemes with strict
regulations such as,
In 1981 Sweden
introduced hunting quotas on brown bears.
This is thought to
be the main driver of the recovery of this species. There has also
been a European-wide ban on the hunting of
Harbour seals, with the
exception of Iceland and Norway.
a compensation scheme with financial rewards for the reproduction of
Most impressive of
all, the Eurasian Beaver has not only had legal protection, it has
also been reintroduced in more than 25 countries across Eurasia.
The European bison
made its comeback as the result of more than 50 years of breeding
and reintroduction programs. In the 1930s, after going extinct in
the wild, conservationists published the first edition of the
European Bison Pedigree Book.
It records the full
genealogical history of all surviving bison. It was the first
conservation program of its kind and it has been updated every year
The bison has come
a long way since its first reintroduction to the wild in 1952.
A century after
going extinct in the wild, the IUCN Red List
moved it from the classification of Vulnerable to Near
Threatened thanks to continued conservation efforts.
promising trends show is that the recovery of wildlife is possible.
Improvements in agricultural productivity not only halted the
expansion of agriculture, but eventually reversed it.
Farmland was given
back to nature. Importantly, Europe achieved this while
producing more food at the same time.
And what has been
essential has been the vital work of conservationists.
From fighting for
wildlife protection policies and hunting quotas, to reintroduction
programs, the dedication of determined individuals lies at the heart
of this wild mammal comeback.
I would like to thank,
Max Roser, Matt
Conlen, Daniel Gavrilov, Saloni Dattani, Fiona Spooner and
suggestions and feedback on this article.
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