August 8, 2011

It was 25 years ago when  I saw a tortoise for the last time, as a researcher of perhaps the richest area of reptiles in Europe: Thrace. Even Egyptian vulture, imperial eagle and black vulture fed on reptiles there. And it appeared that the majestic golden eagle, elsewhere picking young ibex and chamois off the rocks, was taking almost 100 tortoises a year per eagle chick back to the nest.

Twenty five years ago, I said goodbye to Kostas Kamboulis, one of the last shepherds of Dadia in Greece who even then was already a marginal figure in the northern Greek society. The “real men” in the village had switched from being shepherds  to foresters funded by the World Bank or had bought new tractors with grants from the European Union, and of course a rifle.

With this departure of the shepherds and their grazing flocks from the mountains, later encouraged by the European agricultural policy, the semi-Mediterranean forests grew increasingly dense. Reptiles, however, need sunlight in order for their buried eggs to hatch so with open spaces becoming scarce, the turtles increasingly deposited their eggs on the last meadows maintained by the last remaining shepherds. A table set for foxes, martens and wild boars, which needed less effort to dig for this delicacy.

The collapse of the tortoise population made us realize that we witnessed the end of a story millions of years old. The relationship between natural grazing and related natural communities. A story that survived the last thousands of years in a derived, cultivated form, but now this had been destroyed in a few decades.

We now know that land abandonment in northern Greece was not unique to this region. Over the past 30 years, millions of hectares of marginal farmland in Europe were abandoned and this process is continuing at a rate of almost 1 million hectares per year. It is the biggest conservation issue of our time, because the European countryside is changing rapidly becoming a landscape of two extremes: closed forest and intensive agriculture. Many types of natural grasslands, bushes, thickets and forest edges end up with no future.

The problem is hardly recognized by European nature conservationists, but when they do acknowledge the problem, they lapse into old reflexes, calling for subsidies for mountain farmers or shepherds. But these people are often gone or older than 70. Kostas Kamboulis is dead. Young Greeks, Lithuanians or Croats choose the city to live instead of becoming a farmer or shepherd.

There is also a movement that thinks this dense forest growth  is wonderful. For them wilderness is equivalent to virgin forests. But what about all those species of (semi) open landscapes, the majority of the European flora and fauna, where do they go? It remains unclear.

Scientific debate rages about whether large herbivores had a significant role in European nature. 25 years ago, I took my own stand. With the tortoise as a symbol for thousands of other species I have the proof. And as long as no other natural process could be identified on a European scale that offers ecosystems a sustainable future, I have been stepping up with ARK for the return of wild herbivores. Encouraged by the experience in my own surroundings, at the top of the Dutch Delta, and through a growing number of projects at home and abroad, we are now ready for a European initiative: Rewilding Europe.

For the tortoises in Thrace it is hopefully not too late.

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